Man Talks To Animals -
And They Talk Back
By Burl Burlingame - Honolulu Star-Bulletin
IF you could talk to the animals, what would a horse tell you? Get off my back? Nothing that pointed, says Bill Northern. Horses may nurse a grudge for a while, "but he'll get over it. Animals don't stay mad. Except maybe cats. But then, who knows about cats? Cats will fib to get you to go away while you're trying to talk to them."
That's what Northern does. He talks to animals. Most of us do. But for Northern, they talk back. In English. In sentence form. Verbs and nouns and adjectives.
"At least that's the way I hear it," he shrugs. "An accent? Like, does a Southern horse have a Southern accent? No. But horses sound different from each other, and way different from dogs and cats. Horses are very forceful, and dogs are kind of goofy. Cats ... I don't like talking to cats, and they don't like talking to anyone."
Northern, a retired Virginia businessman who passes through Honolulu a couple of times every year, going to and from his winter ranch in New Zealand, is in demand as an "animal communicator," acting as a kind of translator and arbitration board between pet and owner. People line up to have their pets' thoughts expressed. His business has grown through word of mouth.
So to speak.
Pet owners appear satisfied with Northern as animal consul. And a couple of animal experts say some humans do have a better rapport with animals than others.
Northern spent most of his life as a office-supplies businessman, and on the side raced and bred horses. "During all this time," he said, "the only thing I learned about horses was how to sign the trainers' checks every month."
In his mid-50s, Northern became interested in dowsing, the art of manipulating objects to enter a meditative state in which the psychic currents of the universe become apparent. That's vastly oversimplified, but the point is that dowsing is more than looking for hidden water with a forked stick, and Northern attended a dowsing school in Vermont. One class project involved a couple of horses and 20 questions, such as, "Does this horse like women?" "Dressage?"
"We used a pendulum to enter the meditative state and imagined what the horses' answers were," said Northern. "I got them almost all wrong! Worse, fellas from New York City who had never met a horse before in their lives were getting them almost all right."
He didn't say how he knew the person who held the answers was accurate. But a few weeks later, in New Zealand, Northern ruefully related his failure to communicate with the horses to friend Fred Fletcher. Fletcher suggested he try again. The next morning, they brought two horses in from the pasture and Northern discovered that he could suddenly understand the horses' needs and desires.
The missing apple
That was a couple of years ago. Last year, while Northern was working with some horses in Virginia, he was inspecting a stable when he heard someone say, "I didn't get my apple today!"
"What?" said Northern, who had been bringing apples from his farm to the stable for the trainers.
It was coming from a horse named Freeholder. "I didn't get my apple today," Freeholder complained.
Although Northern thought someone was playing a trick on him, he repeated Freeholder's statement to the nearby trainer (who didn't hear anything). "Aw, Freeholder's lying," laughed the trainer. "He got his apple when all the others did."
"No, I didn't either!" said Freeholder.
A few minutes later, the trainer found Freeholder's apple. "How in the world did you know that Freeholder didn't get an apple this morning?" the trainer said.
"Dunno," said Northern. "I just heard him say so."
At least that's the way Northern says it started. Since then, he's been busy, a shuttle diplomat between pets and owners.
"I talk mostly to horses because horse owners are the most interested in what their animals are thinking. Dogs. Some cats. Once, I talked to some fish in a fishpond, but there's not a lot going on in a fish's mind. Food, food, food, that's about it."
What IS going on in horse's mind? Pretty much horse stuff. There's no secret society among horses based on iambic pentameter poetry, in case you were wondering. It's pretty much "the hay is delicious today," "my owner called me a bad name last week and I'm going to step on his toe when I get a chance," "I wish I could do more jumping," "this saddle blanket is really itchy."
"Horses look down on us; they think we're around to service them," said Northern. "If you're late bringing their food, a horse thinks, 'what's the matter with that so-and-so?' And dogs think, 'What did I do wrong to deserve a late meal.' Dogs will go out of their way not to hurt your feelings. And cats will think, 'Dinner's late, I better go kill something!' "
Animals pass judgment
"That sort of general observation is apparent to anyone who hangs around animals," observed Dr. Pauline Yap of Companion Animal Hospital in Kailua. "Those are sorts of cliches about horse and dog and cat behavior, and generally accurate for most animals."
Can some people really talk to the animals?
"That's more of a philosophical question than a scientific or medical one, isn't it?" said Yap. "It's certainly true that some people -- particularly those who grew up around animals -- instinctively know how to behave to put an animal at its ease. It's a physical language. I see this regularly with some people -- animals just react to them well.
"And animals read US very well. They're very sensitive to our moods, our vibes. I knew from childhood, for example, that I had a natural affinity for animals, and that wasn't something I learned. It was natural."
"I'll tell you, animals are excellent judges of character," said Dr. Halina Zaleski of the University of Hawaii Animal Sciences department, and a pig farmer. "I've learned that if my pigs didn't like someone, that was someone I had to keep an eye on."
This kind of non-verbal communication between people and animals is a two-way street, said Zaleski, but humans aren't as good at it as animals are. "Animals are generally extremely sensitive to people's moods and feelings, and some people have a much better instant rapport with animals than others, just like some people are good with kids and others aren't.
"It's a kind of trust issue. I don't know what it is specifically that triggers trust in animals, but part of it is certainly familiarity."
So scientists and doctors know there's something going on between people and animals on an unconscious, intuitive level. But abstract communication? Real heart-to-hearts? Hmmmmm.
Owners confirm results
"I'm absolutely sold," said Wayne Shizuru, manager of A-Tri-K Stables, where Northern paid a visit last week. "There are just too many coincidences. For example, one horse owner told Northern that he was the primary caretaker, and Northern broke out laughing.
"He said, 'Your horse says you're lying! You're not the main trainer, that guy over there is," and he -- or the horse -- was absolutely right. How could Northern have known that?
"Everyone here was dumbfounded, and we're all rethinking our relationships with our horses. We didn't know we were hurting their feelings, not to mention little technical things the horses wanted us to know, like saddles having too much weight on one side, or something.
"It's a new perspective. We knew horses had feelings, but we didn't know how complex and abstract their thinking could be."
Northern, said Shizuru, doesn't charge enough for his services -- about $35 a consultation -- and said Northern "had nothing to sell us. Incredibly cheap, given the immediate change in the horses' well-being. I get the feeling he only charges to keep people from abusing his services."
There are things that the horses told Northern that no one else could know, said Shizuru. "One of the horse said I called him a bastard, and his feelings were hurt. Gosh! I did do that several weeks ago while we were out riding, and he acted up, but no one heard me. I apologized and the horse and I are getting along better now."
"Horses are generally willing to meet you halfway," shrugged Northern.
"Another horse had a skin problem and we tried everything, but it wouldn't clear up," said Shizuru. "Northern talked to the horse, and the horse said he really craved garlic. Garlic? Horses don't eat garlic. But we started feeding him a clove every day, and his skin cleared right up. Never seen anything like it. Must have been a vitamin deficiency, but how did a horse know that?"
Kea Among's horses have benefitted from Northern as their mouthpiece. "One was acting up, and told Bill (Northern) that the problem was in her shoulder, a sore spot caused by the saddle. We changed that, gave her a few days' rest, and suddenly she's a different horse, and we raised her from a foal.
"She told Bill she wants to be a jumper -- we would never have guessed that -- and now we let her do some jumping, and now she's happy and well-mannered."
Northern was talking to another horse, one with a sullen, withdrawn attitude, when he was startled. "What's this horse's name?" he turned and asked Among.
"Booger," she said. "He was a little booger when he was born, and it stuck."
"Booger?" said Northern. "I thought I was hearing it wrong. He doesn't like his name. Why don't you let him suggest a new name?"
Among had her doubts. Would Booger respond to a new name? After discussing it with the horse, Northern said the horse would prefer to be called Prince.
"Prince!" said Among, and the horse's head came up and he trotted over to her. "Now that is too weird," said Among.
She reports, however, that Prince's behavior has changed 180 degrees and he seems to be a happier horse.
In the meantime, remember that your horse thinks he's smarter than you are. And if he can understand you and you can't understand him, he's probably right.
"Horses have goals, things they want to do, and they resent being helped, like human athletes do," said Northern. "They want to succeed. Some want to jump. Some want to be trail horses. And some just want to graze. I know a lot of people like that!
"Dogs are, ah, politically correct. They'd do anything not to hurt your feelings. Horses could care less."
"Can I really talk to horses? Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with things in my head that horses want their owners to know. And if I get it wrong, the horses tell me so.
"Everyone's a skeptic. Good! Ten years ago, I was too. I would have committed myself to the funny farm. Since then, I can only tell you what the horses have already told me."
Oddly, success in horse psychology didn't impress "all the skeptics hanging out at the barn," said Among. "It was was my VCR remote. It had been missing for weeks."
VCR remote?
"My grandson lost my VCR remote control, and I mentioned it, because we were thinking about taping a show that had horse in it, and Bill thought for a moment, and said, it's buried deep in the light-colored sofa at your house. I said no, we looked there, and he said, not deep enough.
"So I went home, and looked, and there it was! I called the stable -- they were standing around waiting to see if it would turn up -- and they were all amazed."
We'd close this story by saying it came straight from the horse's mouth, but we're trying to stay neutral.


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