Farewell, cowboy

Published 9:45 pm Monday, June 29, 2015

Ray Norman, a renowned Suffolk horseman, lost a battle with cancer last week. (Submitted Photo)

Ray Norman, a renowned Suffolk horseman, lost a battle with cancer last week. (Submitted Photo)

The area’s equine community has lost a man often described as Suffolk’s horse whisperer.

Ray Norman, who trained horses at Somerton Farm on Corinth Chapel Road, died in a Virginia Beach hospice facility on June 23 after battling cancer. He was 56.

“He had a gift that truly touched every person and horse that he worked with,” said Michele De Vinney Schmoll, one of the many disciples of Norman’s brand of horsemanship, which emphasized communicating on the horse’s level to build a lasting relationship.

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“It was a small part of what defined him as a great man,” Schmoll added.

According to Lisa Norman, her husband had a mole removed from his neck as a 23-year-old in about 1981.

In 2005, he found a lump in his neck. A biopsy revealed it was metastatic cancer.

He had the lump removed and was treated with radiation, but in 2013, when he started to experience problems with his hands and excruciating headaches, they learned the cancer had reached his brain.

Ray Norman’s first horse was “Princess,” the pony his dad Vernon Norman gave him when he was a young boy. “He taught it how to pull a cart,” Lisa Norman said.

When Norman was an adult, his niece decided she wanted a horse and he got back involved with the equestrian world. “At that point, he decided he wanted to stay in it,” Lisa Norman said.

Rediscovering his innate gift, he started out at local riding clubs, she said, and then started training horses at home in Pungo. All this was in 1996.

In 1999 they moved to Suffolk. Lisa Norman started working full time, and her husband, who up until then had kept up a day job — most recently in sales — became a full-time horse trainer.

Ray Norman’s stature as a horse whisperer grew when he taught a class at Martins Community College in North Carolina. In the last five or so years of his career, he started working with clients at their homes.

Explaining that her husband was a horseman in the American Western, rather than in the English dressage, tradition, the horse community realized he was a cowboy with a natural and unique ability, Lisa Norman said.

Before Ray Norman’s cancer left him unable to work, the family bought a camper with the idea of living in it until they could improve their Corinth Chapel Road property and build a house.

The first challenge was installing a well system, which would have meant no more transporting water to the site.

But the medical bills mounted, and the Normans had to put their dreams on hold.

The Normans’ daughter, Lauren Norman, 20, is now stepping in to take over from her father. They’re keeping the dream alive, Lisa Norman said, adding that the horse community has given them solid support.

A gofundme page Schmoll set up to help the Norman family can be found at www.gofundme.com/ridingforray.

Donations also can be made at any Southern Bank branch under the name Ray Norman Medical Fund, or by sending a check made out to Ray Norman Medical Fund to Southern Bank, Attn: Sonya Payne, P.O. Box 51, Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948.

“Ray had a way of teaching people to work with animals — to learn their behavior,” said Schmoll, who bought land opposite Somerton Farm. “It was commonsense horsemanship.”

She penned a poem for the neighbor she loved and admired. It ends this way:

“We have to remember we will see him again when it is time for our long last ride.

“So Ride, Ray Norman, Ride, Cowboy Ride.”