WHEATON, Ill. – There's a prolific new artist in residence at the Danada Equestrian Center. He can turn out six or more abstract art pieces during a 20-minute session. He also can pull carriages, which he used to do on Michigan's Mackinac Island.
He is Nick, a 22-year-old Appaloosa/Clydesdale cross, and he's the latest horse at Danada to take up painting — with the help and urging of volunteers and staff.
Nick first donned his hand-me-down painter's beret in May when volunteer Maureen Murray chose him from the 19 horses on the farm to learn to paint. Within three weeks, Murray and Danada equestrian assistant Margaret Gitter had Nick picking up the paintbrush with his teeth and painting the canvases they laid before him on a hay bale.
The trick? Carrots. "He is entirely food-motivated," said Gitter.
Danada has had horses painting for about 10 years. Nick is the fourth. The painting project was started to give older horses something interesting to do. Nick has arthritis and is retired from the Danada riding program. Retired horses, Murray said, get bored and they like the attention and the treats.
But it isn't just the horses that enjoy it. Staff and volunteers quickly saw how much visitors liked watching the works in progress, and they discovered that the paintings are a great fundraiser. Visitor snap up Nick's artwork, which sells for $5 to $15.
Nick is an accomplished horse. Along with working on Mackinac Island in his youth, he led the equine drill team at Danada for nine years. But it's more personality than skill that makes him perfect for painting, Gitter said.
"He's a pretty easygoing horse. He loves the attention and he likes pleasing the audience," said Gitter, who assists Nick with his painting three or four times a week.
After 20 minutes he starts to get bored, she said. Or maybe he has had his fill of carrots.
Nick paints with an inch-wide brush that has a thick foam pad taped to the handle so he can easily and comfortably grip the handle with his teeth.
One volunteer dips the brush in the paint. Another hands it to Nick, who grabs it and bends down to swipe the color on the canvas. Usually after one or two strokes up and down, he's done and drops the brush or tosses it, sometimes toward the people who are watching. He then immediately turns to the right, where Gitter offers the carrot.
On a recent morning Nick had park visitors and volunteers cheering him on. The more praise he got, the more time he put into his canvases and the more his legs became splattered with the primary colors.
"He really rocked it today," said volunteer Jean Gotkowski. "He did a dozen, when normally six is about his limit."
Gitter said the horse was taught by using positive reinforcement training. Each time Nick does something right, he hears the click and gets a treat. At first he had to touch the paintbrush with his nose. Then his lips. Then he had to learn to hold it with his teeth, then to hold it and put his head down. Finally he learned to swipe the canvas.
Veterinarian David Heinze has been taking care of the Danada horses for two years, He said the animals benefit from activity.
"You don't have to be a horse whisperer to know that horses like to have a job," he said.