You know how people and their dogs tend to look similar? Is it something that happens over time, or did they start out that way? I keep mulling this over, trying to figure out if in a similar way, Alexandra North and her mare CV Butter Bea (*Procent x Beatrice) came together because of their complementary personalities, or if, over time they've grown to become more and more alike. After speaking with Alex, a CPA living in Carmel Valley, I have one strong impression: If you want something, go out and get it. If there's an obstacle, find a way around it (or over it, through it, under it).
Call her strong-willed, a go-getter, assertive, forthright, or even go so far as to call her stubborn--you may well be right. Am I talking about the horse or Alex? Either. Both. Here's a pair that knows what they want and how to get it. So, their methods may differ--Butter Bea is known for kicking the barn wall and chasing intruders from her space whereas Alex uses more diplomatic methods--but the result is the same: people step back and take notice.
Quit Endurance Riding? Never!
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1995, Alexandra North has never once considered that endurance riding would be out of the question. She had just finished her first 25-mile ride on her first Arabian, a little black stallion named Jamboree Mirage (Jamboree Caliber x Jamboree Prelude) whom she describes as "eye candy, and with a beautiful personality," when she found out. She'd been told that she shouldn't ride because part of her challenge with MS is a loss of balance and control of her legs--which certainly would make riding difficult. Or so you would think! Even though that first 25-mile ride was a bit more than she had bargained for, after a couple of weeks to mull it over, she knew she had to go back and do it again. She'd caught the endurance riding bug.
Despite the protestations of worried friends, she continued to ride. "I promised to take drugs for the balance and muscle problems and went happily along my way. I was weak and not very well, so I planned my rides around where I lived and where I could rest when I needed to," Alex explains. "I would lie on a picnic table with Jamboree Mirage's reins wrapped around my hands and sleep, and he'd just stand over me. I rode alone because he was a stallion and while he wasn't bad, I didn't want to deal with everyone being afraid of him. Anyway, nobody wanted to ride as long as I did. You know, they'd ride for half an hour and think they'd been somewhere!"
While the affection she has for Jamboree Mirage is undeniable, he really wasn't exactly the horse for her. "He was okay to 25 miles, and metabolically he was fabulous, but he didn't really like it. You'd get to the 50-milers and he was like 'Ick! This smacks too much of work!' I didn't feel like his heart was in it, and I didn't want to push him."
That's when a chance encounter led her to Clayton Valley Farms in Clayton, California, where in exchange for conditioning one of their horses for the track, they agreed to give her a horse. "Well, I didn't get my pick!" Alex laughs. "The first horse they gave me was a 9-year-old broodmare, completely untrained and unbroke and with no interest in being either of those things!" My Folly (Bask-O-Zel x Tamerocha) doesn't trust people --especially strangers, and isn't too keen on being saddled, but has turned out to be an excellent trail horse--easy to ride, smooth, and even-headed. And at her first 25-miler she won by 20 minutes, never breaking out of her steady trot.
"I loved Folly and thought she was going to be the horse," says Alex. "I didn't think she was going to burn up the road, but she would get me there comfortably. But around 1998 or 1999 the people at Clayton Valley called and said 'Such a horse we have for you! Folly's great, but you've gotta see Butter Bea.'"
Endurance Riding with Butter Bea
So Butter Bea traveled to Carmel Valley for a trial period of a couple of months. Stepping off the trailer, she didn't look very promising, as she was rather scraggly, covered in sticky black tarweed and nicks and scars. But trotting around the arena she was transformed. "Wow!" remembers Alex. "She moves with such power! I love to watch her muscles move. She's not a beautiful, typey Arab--she's big and rangy--but she's an incredible athlete."
Butter Bea was resistant at first--stubborn, and often rather nasty--as she's got a clear idea of the way things should be. But through time, she and Alex have worked out a way to get what they both want. "She is what she is," says Alex. "She's very clear about everything, 'I don't like this, don't like that person, don't like that piece of equipment.' When she doesn't like something she starts breaking things." Alex has incredible patience when it comes to Butter Bea, going to great lengths to find the solution to whatever is bothering her.
"She didn't want to get into the trailer and I thought 'How could this be? She's a racehorse!' Well, it turned out she didn't like my trailer. I had to winch her in with a rope around her behind every time. But when I took her to the first race in April of 1999 we used my fiancé's trailer, and she hopped right in. When I brought her back home and went to load her into my trailer again, she stood there and looked at the trailer, then looked at me and you could just hear her say 'You know, we discussed this; I'm not going in! I don't like this!' I got it. She wanted a slant-load, not a straight load. So I sold that trailer and got a new one and haven't had a peep out of her."
Then there was the problem with the breast collar, which she apparently didn't like. Butter Bea refused to climb any hills with the breast collar on, not a single step. And if she was prodded, she would lie down. After trying five different breast collars, Butter Bea finally found one she liked, and the problem was solved. Alex and Butter Bea quickly learned to communicate with each other and appreciate each other's needs. "She understands," says Alex. "I think that given the chance, most horses do. They really do know what you are feeling. The hours of endurance riding give you the chance to get so tuned into your animal out there in the middle of nowhere that you can feel their emotions." And they can feel yours, too. On more than one occasion, Butter Bea has given Alex the same consideration that Alex had given her.
"At one ride, I was out of remission and not feeling terribly well. My fiancé, Steve McCorkle, literally had to lift me onto her. My MS was so bad my legs weren't working. So I couldn't get off anywhere on the trail but at a vet check where I could get help getting back on. And I tell you, that horse knew. She didn't do anything bad. She focused on where she was going and taking care of me. She even rode with other people without any of her normal nasty snarling behavior. And we finished with the sixth fastest time for the three days."
Butter Bea has figured out that she loves her job, and she and Alex have formed a close partnership. "I really cherish the time we spend together. She really is a partner and a friend. In the night, when you're trotting along and the stars are out and you can hear the crickets ... sometimes, depending on whether we're walking or trotting I can hear her breathe. She breathes at a certain cadence when she's trotting along and her feet are muffled because of the Easy Boots ... there's something about it that's so ... Zen! I'm not a religious person, but you know, I find I can tune into that horse so well that I can breathe at the same rate, and there's just no other way to describe it ... it just feels so Zen! And that's the only place that I can do it.
"I know that it's good for my balance, for my health and for my muscle problems. I do take some herbal medications, go to a chiropractor regularly and an acupuncturist, but I truly believe that this sport and the horses have helped me get better. They're amazing that way."
The achievements of Alexandra North and CV Butter Bea are spectacular enough, if you consider the hurdles the pair had to cross in order to even make it to a ride. But it gets better: They not only made it, but they did well. If you look at their ride history starting in the 1999 season, you'll see 21 top-ten finishes, eight firsts and a couple of best conditioned awards as well. "I was there because I was having a good time. I rode with several people who had been doing it for years and had miles and miles learning from them. But I had my camera in my belt and I was like this Labrador puppy that was just sort of bounding along and they were like Border collies that were totally focused on their job," she says. "And here I am saying 'You wanna take a picture? You wanna play?' And we'd just happen to be in the top because I had a great horse!"
About three-quarters of the way through the 2002 season Alex became aware of the fact that their point standing in AERC was high, and they were in the running for the War Mare Award, an award given to the mare with the highest points in the nation. Points are calculated taking into consideration miles raced and placing within the race. "It was something I really wanted to win," said Alex. "Because this horse truly typifies that name. When you hear the words 'war mare,' you think Butter Bea, because she's tough -- tough-minded, competitive."
So Alex, ever the accountant, sat down with a calculator and a piece of paper to find out what she'd have to do to beat her closest competitor, Nicole Luck, who had won the award two years in a row. "I looked at what region she was in, what races she'd gone to in the past, and where she was likely to go this year. I called the managers of rides whose results hadn't been posted on the Internet yet to see where she'd placed. Then I calculated what her score was and what my score was, and looked at the calendar to see where I'd have to go to beat her."
This sent Alex and Butter Bea on an incredible journey, to a three-day 150-mile race in Nevada, and then a one-day 100-miler in Texas, then back to Nevada for a two-day 100-miler ... with just three weeks to do it all. No one knew just how close she was to winning the War Mare award, including Nicole, and Alex didn't tell a soul.
Talking a mile a minute, Alex rattled off the amazing story: "I left a day early to the first ride, headed toward Donner Pass into Nevada. This was about the time we had the first really bad storm of the season, and along the way I called my fiance and told him I needed to get groceries. 'Oh no! Keep going!' he said. 'The weather is right on you, you'll never make it through!' So I kept going and made it through the pass, down into Carson City where I stayed at the fairgrounds. It howled all night long! It was amazing that we made it through, because there was two feet of snow on the pass, and if I'd waited I wouldn't have made it! So I finished all three days of the ride -- and finished first all three days, which I needed to do in order to continue.
Sunday after the race I went back to Carson City and rested Monday, did laundry. Tuesday morning we loaded up at 5 a.m., drove to Palm Springs, next morning got up at six, drove to Tucson, Thursday morning got up at six, arrived at El Paso. Foamed on Butter Bea's Easy Boots (to make the boots stay on, and protect her feet better), vetted in Friday, raced a hundred miles, finished first, loaded back into the trailer, back to Palm Springs..." (Whew! Take a breath, there's more...) "We rested for six to eight days, and back into the trailer we go to Jean, Nevada, to do another three-day 150 miles. So I raced Friday, finished third; Saturday, finished first; and didn't race Sunday because Sunday lapsed into a new year for AERC.
"Each of those days I raced Nicole Luck, and she came in behind me. She had no idea that I was so close to beating her, because none of my previous races had been posted on the Internet yet. As far as what was on the computer, I wasn't even in the top ten. Nobody knew!" But this March Alexandra (without Butter Bea) traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to pick up their War Mare award, as well as a few other honors: First Middleweight in the West Region, First Overall in the West, and the Pioneer Award for most points earned in multi-day rides. And while there's no official award for it, she has the second highest points overall in the entire nation.
It was a huge amount of work, and quite an ordeal, but for Alexandra North, it's worth it. She's convinced that in order to stay in remission she needs a focus that isn't within the body. When she's focused on the next thing, when she's got a goal ahead of her, she's able to stay well. As proof, she explains: "When I did Tevis my first time, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven, because that was the pinnacle. After Tevis, what else is there? But then I got sick and couldn't ride. After Tevis 2000 I couldn't do another race for the rest of the year."
Endurance Riding Plans for the Future
And so, what's she got in store for herself and Butter Bea for next year? Well, the Pan-American Championships, of course! Nominating to be on the team is no easy task, especially when not only did she need to prove that she and Butter Bea should be one of the 12 chosen for the team, but she needed to become an American citizen first! Here's where her determination and relentlessness comes through. Bound and determined to race at the Championships in September, and hopefully, race next year in the United Arab Emirates at the World Cup in December 2004, she decided to apply to be on the Canadian team (she's a Canadian citizen), since the process to become an American citizen can take months, even years. But after an ordeal concerning her eligibility because she lives in the U.S., she opted to focus her energies on being on the U.S. team. "So I contacted my congressman and got him and his office involved and I was able to get it all wrapped up in 53 days," says Alex.
"I really want to be on the team. If I wanted to race by myself, I would race by myself. It's been difficult, but I want to be a part of it. I would like to do these couple of things because I know it is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me. Butter Bea doesn't know any of this. She's blithely racing along, blissfully unaware of all the struggle that's going on."
As if all this weren't enough, she's also involved in a fund-raising effort for a grassroots program called the MS Quality of Life Project based in Carmel. "I was introduced to the president of the organization by a friend of mine," Alex says. "They needed some energy, and I said I couldn't do anything for the people one-on-one but I can raise money. So people sponsor me like a walkathon per mile or per event. All the money goes into the Quality of Life Project. It seems to be working."
Energy is one thing Alexandra seems to have plenty of. Her setting of goals, appreciating the small joys in life, has kept her healthy and absolutely bursting with life. "When I go to a board meeting or talk publicly people are like, 'I want whatever drug you're on.' But it's not anything I'm taking. It's the little stuff: riding in the stars at night, being able to breathe with your horse, the goals and focus of getting to the finish line.
"I'd like to direct my life away from the accounting and the pressure of tax season. I'd like to do some motivational speaking and books," she adds. "If my goal is to motivate people, I've gotta get them off the couch. And there are a lot of people suffering from various illnesses who have let it become their whole focus, it becomes their whole vocation. To reach out and touch someone, I feel I really need to accomplish something and it needs to be something big."
Knowing Alexandra, there's little doubt that she and Butter Bea will be able to do it. She's convinced (and quite convincing!) that if you want something badly enough, you need to set clear goals, and just do it.