By Kimberly Gatto
Portraits by Isabel J. Kurek
Cynthia “Tootie” Anderson is not one to back down from a challenge. The Virginia-based rider and horsewoman, who describes herself as a self-made eventer, has overcome numerous obstacles in her more than 38 years with horses. Thus, when her veterinarian, Dr. Amy Grice, suggested that Tootie look at a mare that nobody else could handle, Tootie was more than game for the challenge. Little did she know that the large chestnut mare—appropriately known as She’s Got Game, or Zoe around the barn—would take Tootie on the ride of a lifetime.
Tootie’s love of horses began when she was a young child in suburban New York. “I had to pass by a farm every day on the way to and from school,” she said. “I would beg my parents to let me ride, but they said I was too young.” Finally, on her eighth birthday, Tootie was allowed to start taking lessons. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion. “Once I sat on a horse, I was hooked,” she said. “The rest, as they say, is history.”
A year after she began riding, Tootie’s parents bought a horse called Spider as a pleasure mount for the family. “They didn’t know he was actually a fancy horse,” Tootie said. “He was around 16.2 hands and had basically been used and abused as a show horse. He passed the pre-purchase exam on the notion he would be used for flatting and crossrails—not serious jumping.”
Within a month, Tootie found herself showing in children’s hunter classes at the insistence of her instructor. Very quickly, it became clear that Spider could no longer handle the rolling three-foot courses of the hunter ring. “He would slam on the brakes if the distance wasn’t right,” Tootie said. “I think I fell off every Friday, which was the day of our jumping lesson. My instructor continued pushing us to jump more, even though he was clearly having trouble.’’
It soon became clear to Tootie’s parents that the situation was not working out. They moved Spider to a new barn, where he was sold for a less demanding career and Tootie found herself with a new horse called Hershey. “He was not as fancy as Spider, but he was honest,” Tootie said of the brown gelding. “I had to share Hershey with my sister.” Within a short while, Tootie—who was always tall for her age—had outgrown Hershey. “I had become so tall that my feet were actually knocking rails off of the jump cups,” she said.
Since her family lacked the funding to buy her another horse, 11-year-old Tootie had to be resourceful. “I rode anything and everything with four legs,” she said. “My only way to ride was to take on the horses that nobody else wanted to ride—stoppers, buckers, you name it. I’d make the horses behave better, but then within three or four months they would be sold and I would have to start all over again.”
Regular lessons were not in the family budget once college was on the horizon. “I’ve been mostly self-taught since I was 16,” Tootie said. “I didn’t have a horse of my own, so I made the most of what I did have. I did a lot of reading. I audited clinics, watched videos and went to local shows as a spectator. Since my saddle time was limited, that’s how I learned.” Meanwhile, she excelled at college basketball and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Hamilton College, followed by Master of Physical Therapy and a career as a physical therapist. Yet horses were never far from Tootie’s heart.
A New Challenge
When she turned 30, Tootie purchased a weanling filly by the name of Sadie. Slowly and carefully, she raised, broke and trained the mare for an eventual career in eventing. “We competed for half a season,” Tootie said. “Sadie was a complete rock star. Then she developed some physical problems and we found out that she had severe kissing spine. I spent what little money I had on vet bills.”
Sadie’s career was over, and Tootie—lacking funds and suffering from health issues of her own—had pretty much given up on riding. In 2009, Tootie was recovering from a ruptured endometrioma that required emergency abdominal surgery and had nearly ended her life. “After weeks of recovery,” she said, “I had finally reached a point where I could get up and start walking around. Then the phone rang.”
The caller was Dr. Amy Grice, the veterinarian who had spent countless hours working to diagnose and treat Sadie and, in the process, had become well-acquainted with Tootie and her abilities. Amy told Tootie that she had a horse for her to look at: an 8-year-old, purebred Irish Draught mare standing 17 hands and weighing in excess of 1,750 pounds. The white-blazed chestnut, known as Zoe, had become dangerous for her current owners. Large and aggressive, the mare had been turned out for the past six years and would be euthanized soon if a suitable situation could not be found. “Amy kept telling me to just go look at this horse once,” Tootie said. “Call it fate or whatever. She had a deep feeling that we would be the perfect match.”
The mare was challenging, to say the least. She was difficult to manage on the ground and tried to buck Tootie off when she first sat on her back. But she did show promise. “Once she realized I was not going to hurt her, she went right to work,” Tootie said. She was interested enough to go back for a second visit, and then a third. Each time, the mare seemed to become a bit more trusting and better behaved in the saddle.
Fueled by Amy’s faith in her and a feeling that the mare could be rehabilitated, Tootie decided to take a chance. She purchased Zoe for the mere sum of $10, with a sale contract that stated there would be no legal action if the horse injured or killed her. “I felt I had nothing to lose in taking her on,” Tootie said. “When I looked in Zoe’s eye, I saw that she was frightened rather than mean. And if it didn’t work out, at least I would know I had given her a chance.”
Against All Odds
Once Tootie earned Zoe’s trust, she realized that the mare had an incredible talent and scope over fences. “She dragged me to the first vertical I pointed her at,” Tootie said. “I felt her athleticism under me and her great willingness to try.” As the partnership began to develop, Tootie set a personal goal: to ride Zoe in an off-property event before early winter of that year. The pair smashed this first goal, entering their first schooling horse trials in August. “From the first time out, she did amazing things for me,” said Tootie. “The mare loved competing. The bigger the jumps, the more spectacular her jumping style would become. She never let me down.”
Without a trainer—or even a groom—to assist her, Tootie competed Zoe up the levels over the next five years, defying and exceeding all odds along the way. The duo’s many accomplishments culminated in Zoe being named USEA Champion Horse of the Year at the Preliminary Level in Area IX in 2015. That same year, she was named Best Three-Day Event Mare Internationally for the Irish Draught breed.
“Nobody else could ride her,” Tootie said. “If you had seen her in person, you would have thought, ‘No way.’ The horse had quite a reputation. I cannot count the number of people who came up to me and asked me what I was thinking. It took me five years, but, with time and patience, I turned her into a really good horse.”
As their partnership solidified, Zoe continued to pleasantly surprise Tootie. “As long as I was on the ground with her, she was amazing with children,” she said. “As a physical therapist, I used her for hippotherapy. Zoe was so good; it seemed she truly understood children suffering from disabilities. Her head and face were as big as their wheelchairs, but she was so gentle with them. It was an unexpected, incredible experience. She was just an awesome horse.”
The bond between Tootie and the once-troubled mare was so strong that, after Zoe’s death from colic in 2018, Tootie felt almost lost without her. “For years, people had been encouraging me to write a book,” she said. “In January 2020, I was in a car accident. I went through some very difficult surgeries over the next year and a half. I figured I could sit there and feel sorry for myself, or I could be productive. I decided to write and self-publish the story of our time together.” The book, “Ride of a Lifetime,” was released in 2021 and is available on her www.optimusfarm.com website.
”My goal for writing the book was to inspire others,” Tootie said. “I want people to realize that you can be a kid—or an adult—with very little money and you can still succeed in this sport. You don’t need the most expensive, made horse. You can find a horse that is not happy or successful doing something and find what they’re good at. You can also take a long hiatus from the sport, and, if you’re diligent, you can still be successful.”
Tootie and her husband, Gary, live on a farm in Bluemont, Virginia, where she now imports, trains and sells Irish Draught horses. Tootie also has her own new prospect—another chestnut mare, who reminds her in some ways of Zoe. Like her predecessor, the new mare was found in an unlikely place, having previously served as an Amish carriage horse. She also carries an appropriate name—Angel.
Tootie is hoping to compete Angel in horse trials over the coming months and years, with expectations of some challenges along the way. But Tootie Anderson has never backed down from a challenge and is not likely to do so now. The lessons that Zoe taught her will likely guide her along the way. “I am living it all again,” Tootie smiled, adding, “There will be a sequel.”
Tootie’s book is available on her website, www.optimusfarm.com
Photos by www.isabeljkurekphotography.com, competition photos by Cristy Cumberworth