Retired Mackinac Island carriage horse taps into his creative side

Margaret and Nick painting

Margaret and Nick painting

A former Mackinac Island carriage horse is living up his retirement years in Illinois. He’s been tapping into his creative side, with help from his trainer.

Nick may look like your average 22-year old Appaloosa/Clydesdale mix – but he’s far from a normal gelding.

He was a Mackinac Island carriage horse. When he was retired, he was bought by two sisters. Finally, he ended up here, at the Danada Equestrian Center. A horse rescue in Illinois, just outside of Chicago.

Last May, a volunteer had an interesting idea for Nick’s new trainer; Margaret Gitter.

“The volunteer asked if I’d work with her on clicker training him to paint.”

Clicker training is a common way to, as the saying goes, teach old horses new tricks.

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“I started with just having him touch the brush, and then he held on to the brush and every time he made the behavior, I clicked, and I gave him a treat. So he knew that was the behavior to make. So little by little he touched it, he held it, he put it down then he started making swipes until we clicked at those behaviors and now he kinda knows.”

Gitter said it took Nick two weeks to get painting down pat.

“We have a paint brush taped to a piece of foam and Nick will actually put it in his mouth put his head down and make strokes on the canvas.”

Like any great artist, Nick has his entourage.

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Gitter or volunteers dab the paintbrush into the colors for him. They then must clean up after Nick’s mess, or should I say masterpiece. The artistic process to complete one canvas normally takes a few minutes.

Gitter said it’s unusual for a horse to be active in its retirement, much less turn Picasso.

“They’re just groomed and taken care of to live out their lives. Yeah there’s not a lot that I know of that paint in retirement.”

Nick was painting up to three times a week in the summer; for kids camps, and presumably for the creative outlet.

For winter he’s down to once a week.

Shelley Schweitzer is with the Danada center. She said unlike other greats, Nick is an artist who is appreciated in his lifetime. Around 175 paintings have been sold so far for as much as $50 each.

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“Yeah I think it’s close to 2,000 dollars? I put it out and it was like 1,800, it’s close to 2,000 just in October through December because of all the publicity.”

As for Nick’s painting doppleganger? Gitter sees his work resembling a famous abstract expressionist.

“I think Nick paints a little like Jackson Pollock, he makes broad strokes on canvas, and multi-colored. Yeah I think that’s the closest artist right now.”

For now, Nick is relaxing for the winter and enjoying his time painting and we imagine contemplating his next masterpiece.

Nick’s handlers say they plan to train more horses to paint within the next year.