" He Just Knows "
Virginian says all he does is 'listen' to horses to learn what's wrong with them, and one is in the Breeders' Cup
By Amy Wilson
HERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITER
It'd be easy to dismiss this guy with his pocket-sized dowsing pendulum and his see-through model horse. It'd be easy to reject outright his "talking" to horses -- whether in person or from a remote locale -- to have them tell him where it hurts.
It'd be downright better, sanity-wise, to skip altogether this foolishness where the horse is said to answer in good ol' American English any question Bill Northern asks in his dulcet Virginia tongue.
And yet there are believers among us, those who do not dismiss or reject but tell long, complicated stories about how their horses explained to Northern that their right leg/stomach/liver was irritated and every vet known to man had missed it but, on more careful study, lo, the reason for the aggravation emerged. And right there where Northern said it would.
The stories are many; those who want to give us their names after telling them, few.
Some of Northern's believers own horse farms but demur when asked to go on the record about their reliance upon Northern's diagnostic communication.
Some of them are veterinarians who say they have reputations to maintain but, otherwise, yeah, he's right about some of this stuff and he's either better educated about equine anatomy than he's letting on, he's a lucky guesser, or -- and here's the thing that might ruin the rep -- he is actually communicating with them.
Northern says maybe nobody in this business wants to tell others about the competitive edge he provides them. Maybe they're afraid. Some even quote Scripture at him because they feel he is defiling their beliefs because he appeals heavenward, to "his angels," to act as spirit guides translating what the horses are saying to him.
Maybe it's because even Northern knows it's a weird business he's in.
"All I do is listen," says Northern, adding that he understands and accepts your skepticism.
Still, a horse only Northern could hear is racing 11/16 miles Saturday at the Breeder's Cup at Churchill Downs for $2 million. Without Northern, she'd have never had the chance.
Her name is Sutra.
Believe you're not crazy
A former businessman, Northern's chosen profession these days is "animal communicator/equine consultant" and, judging from the Google hits and the Amazon offerings and Pet Psychic TV phenomenon, he isn't exactly blazing new trails here.
Still, he's not exactly asking Spot if he wants more kibble.
He is telling America's wealthiest horse owners that he can close his eyes, see inside their biggest investment's stomach, say, and determine whether ulcers are plaguing the beast.
It's a skill like playing a musical instrument -- one you must practice -- and one that came late in life to Northern. You must slow down to hear. You must honestly believe you are not crazy, like when the first time a horse talks and you can find no one in the stall doing ventriloquy.
You must sell what no one, not even you, fully understands.
Northern can be in the presence of the horse or ask a few key question about a horse not present.
In the latter case, a plastic see-through horse model serves as surrogate, with Northern's hands moving slowly over the science toy. He says he feels what the horse is feeling, but only until he tells someone of the pain, then it dissipates. He can feel the bad shoulder, the vertebrae pinch, the bad nail, the throbbing fetlock.
"I don't really know anything," he says again. "I'm just listening."
Most folks hire Northern ($80 for a 20-minute consult) when their horse is sick or behaving badly and it's not so obvious why. They like, he says, having a "diagnostic tool" to help their vet start his or her own inquiries.
Walking through the barns at the Thoroughbred Center in Lexington, lots of folks hail Northern. Sherry Hall asks him to take a meeting with Gold in the Grass. Working quickly, he eyes the horse, who is cooling off after a workout.
"She's weak in the right hind. When she runs, she finds it hard to extend all the way,'' he says. Hall nods, asks if she should inject the horse before the next race.
"Don't ask me. Ask your vet. I'm just telling you what she says is bothering her."
Then he smiles, adding with a certain pink-cheeked, white-bearded mirth, "she says she'd rather run just with the mares; she thinks the boys play too rough."
Asked if this kind of analysis surprises her, Hall says it doesn't because "Bill is always right" and, yes, she'll fix that right side problem "so we can win a race."
Among Northern's clients are those who pay to keep him on retainer and those who want him to telepathically reassure their horses of their love while they are away. Among his spirit guides, there are all kinds of kindly, insightful "angels." There's even an orthopedic surgeon.
Making believers from cynics
Trainer Michael Stidham used to roll his eyes at Northern's pronouncements. He's been a trainer for 28 years -- long enough to know that, in this business, there will always be a parade of people in and out of his office offering the next great tonic, vitamin solution, miracle cure, gadget, mask, ice machine and voodoo skill.
"You learn to be cynical," he says. And yet, he adds, because there is so much pressure and so much at stake in horse racing, a lot gets tried.
People used to scoff at equine nutritionists and acupuncturists, too. No more.
Hilary Pridham, Stidham's assistant trainer, is a big believer in these alternative medicines, so when Northern dropped by Stidham's training barn at Keeneland one day, she asked Mike if it was OK if she let Northern look at a few horses.
Northern said sure.
There was this one horse, Joe Six Pack, who was a "bad actor," says Pridham, meaning he'd drop a rider regularly. The Stidham team was just trying to get Joe to enjoy the ride. And Joe was constantly breaking out with hives in the process. There had to be a reason for that. They had already done all the typical allergy trials. It wasn't the hay, the straw or the shavings. It wasn't his feed or his supplements. Nothing worked.
Enter Northern, who tells them that Joe is saying it's his stomach. Yogurt, Northern told them, would soothe that. Some pure organic apple vinegar, too.
Oh, and one more thing, "Bill said (the horse) wants a rider to tell him what we'll be doing a day before we do it." So he can prepare.
"We talked to the rider the same day," says Pridham.
The hives went away. The riders stayed on.
A 2-year-old filly named Sutra was also in the barn that day. Stidham described her then as "a smallish, plain, nothing-special horse." He had no great expectations.
Northern spent a few seconds in front of Sutra and was insistent that this was a horse who not only wanted to run but knew she could win. Northern said Sutra's heart score -- his way of measuring a horse's desire -- was 125, a score similar to those landed by such standouts as Cigar.
Northern said the horse wanted Pridham to know that she understood how to win a race. (If that weren't enough, the horse housed next to Sutra told Northern he was also fast, "but not as fast as she is.")
Stidham figured what the heck. It wasn't long before Sutra was sent to the $400,000 Frizette Stakes, a Grade 1 race, at Belmont. She won.
Asked if he believes, Stidham smiles broadly. "I only believe it when it works out. Then, I love it."
Every day this week, in preparation for the Breeders' Cup Race, Pridham has consulted with Northern over the phone. He makes contact with Sutra, he says, to see how she's feeling, to see if she's changed her mind about her chances.
She says she's worried about only one other horse.
She wasn't naming names.