CHARLOTTE, Mich. (AP) — “Clifford, this one is so pretty,” said Nancy Bailey, from a folding table in her backyard. “I like this one. It looks very floral.”
It was a sunny afternoon in late May and the chestnut brown Morgan horse standing at the table beside her picked up his muzzle from a sponge covered in bright paint. He’d been pushing it around the piece of paper Bailey held still on the tabletop. Now he shook his head up and down, as if nodding in agreement.
The painting, with its bright green, purple, yellow and red swirls and swipes of color, took Clifford a few minutes to make.
He learned to paint nine years ago, and his creations are always unpredictable. Sometimes they astound even his owner.
“Things happen,” Bailey said. “One time he painted the American flag.”
Does she think it was an accident?
“I’m not sure,” Bailey said, throwing her hands up in the air. “I mean it was Memorial Day, so … and he is an American horse.”
The Lansing State Journal reports that since 2011 the Charlotte horse has made hundreds of appearances at libraries, schools and events around Michigan and the United States. Youngsters giggle and watch in amazement while Clifford tosses a paint-covered sponge around a piece of paper or canvas, occasionally breaking from the work to snatch a treat from Bailey’s outstretched palm.
Young readers know him as Clifford of Drummond Island. That’s the title of the first book Bailey wrote about him in 2001. She’s since written two more.
And this year Clifford received the 2018 Hall of Fame Award from the Equus Foundation, a national charity focused on the horse-human bond.
The wonder his artwork inspires has helped Clifford become an ambassador of empathy, Bailey said, and spreading more of that could change the world.
“The lack of it is the biggest failing in the world,” she said. “Even if it’s just for an hour, if we can open the mind of a young person to empathy, think about what a difference that makes.”
There’s almost nothing typical about Clifford.
He doesn’t give pony rides, he doesn’t compete in shows, and he’s never won a ribbon.
From his pasture in Bailey’s backyard, Clifford loves playing fetch. He will trot after a small, red cone, retrieving it from the grass where Bailey tossed it moments earlier.
In the summer, Bailey and Clifford visit Drummond Island where she grew up. There, Clifford roams freely, running along the shoreline of Lake Huron on the island.
And yes, he’s house trained.
If he behaves more like a dog than a horse, Bailey said that’s her fault. When she got him 25 years ago she raised him unconventionally.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, so I just trained him like a dog and so he started learning to fetch and running around loose up on Drummond Island,” Bailey said.
When Clifford’s trailer arrives at a school or library he struts right into the building, and Bailey said he attempts to personally greet every child he meets inside, sniffing at their hair as he passes them.
“He walks along and he’ll say hello, but if one of them shrinks back he moves on to the next person. He knows. He doesn’t push himself on anyone.”
Bailey’s friends and family weren’t at all surprised when she taught him to paint, and she suspects his fondness for fetch made picking up a sponge she’d dipped in paint with his mouth a natural next step for Clifford.
But she never suspected he’d take to painting like he did.
“I had a little spot in my barn where we would work and if I let him out of the stall he would just go right over there looking for the sponge to paint,” Bailey said.
Since he liked it so much, they kept at it. Clifford’s made hundreds of paintings since.
“We argue over color and composition,” Bailey said. “He’s very opinionated. He’ll throw the sponge and I have to go pick it up.”
Nancy Phares is the media manager for the Michigan State Fair. She’s worked with Clifford and Bailey at events like the Novi Pet Expo for several years, and said the horse’s charm is only half the story.
“Clifford is an exceptional personality,” Phares said. “But the real magic is the chemistry between Nancy and Clifford. He’s just so comfortable with humans. What he can do makes you wonder how much more potential so many other horses might have that we don’t see.”
That level of comfort and safety Clifford offers people, and especially children, has real value, said Sara Daniels, program manager at the Friendship Circle. The West Bloomfield nonprofit provides social opportunities and programs for children with special needs.
Clifford’s appearance at an event they hosted in 2015 was the first time Daniels said she’s seen a horse meet with children inside the building.
“It was exciting and fun,” she said. “It was a bit silly also. It was definitely a unique experience and it’s a calming, therapeutic thing for kids.”
Bailey said part of the fun is watching a crowd’s reaction to Clifford as he paints, and greets them.
“People are fascinated,” she said. “They want to just get right up in there and see what’s happening. Most of the time they laugh. A lot of the kids laugh. We try to make it funny. We have our own little shtick that we do. When we’re there he’s getting paint all over me, he’s getting it all over his face.”
That humor and Clifford’s calm presence has been an opportunity, Bailey said, to send an important message.
“I try to have a message that’s going to stick with people. If you really listen (animals) will tell you what they’re thinking, but you have to be able to have that kind of an ear. It’s not that hard. It’s just a matter of paying attention. I don’t think anybody forgets Clifford, so it’s a chance to make that impact.”
Information from: Lansing State Journal, http://www.lansingstatejournal.com
— Rachel Greco, Lansing State Journal via The Associated Press
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