A multi-talented horse spreads joy across Michigan

Clifford is quite accomplished. He's an abstract painter, a dancer and the subject of a published biography, and goes on statewide tours to spread the message of empathy.

He also has four hooves and a tail.

Clifford , also known as "Clifford of Drummond Island," is the Morgan horse owned, trained -- and cherished -- by Nancy J. Bailey, who also penned his biography of the same name.

Clifford was a replacement for what she called the "perfect horse," Sharolyn, who died of a horse disease eight weeks after she acquired her. Soon afterward Bailey met a 2-year-old colt named Buckets who wasn't exactly what she was looking for: He was a "mouthy chestnut colt." However, Bailey wanted a horse, and maybe it was better to get something different from  the mare she mourned.

Eventually Bailey gave Buckets the name Clifford after her great uncle, who had been a redhead, too, and whose descendants populating Drummond Island also were redheads.

Thus began Bailey's introduction into life with Clifford, also a relative neophyte to the human-horse experience.

"I was new to horses," she said, "and he was new to the world."

Clifford provided plenty of comic relief. Bailey's dad and uncle once were working on a gazebo, digging postholes and other tasks. Clifford, according to Bailey, found the whole construction process fascinating. If he found a stray board lying anywhere, he'd pick up the board and move it. Another time, her dad and uncle were on hands and knees, looking down into a posthole, when Clifford joined in by lowering his head and checking out the posthole as well.

Not long after Buckets became Clifford, Bailey reviewed her Linda Tellington-Jones training video so Clifford could learn about personal space. She began touching the horse with a whip, treating it as an extension of her hand and teaching him that a tap on the croup meant "step forward" and a tap on the chest meant "stop."

Bailey used other, sometimes sweeter, methods to train Clifford.

"I use positive reinforcement and peppermints," she said. "He loves peppermints. That and Twizzlers licorice."

Bailey also trained Clifford to dance using positive reinforcement.  Another method she used was "end behavior." She initially taught Clifford to put things in her hand, and then moved back farther and farther.

Clifford also learned to paint with watercolors, a skill most horses -- and most domesticated animals, for that matter -- don't possess. Clifford, she said, uses his lips to move watercolor paints on a page.

Of course, a horse is limited with its artistic skills, so Clifford, Bailey pointed out, is an "abstract artist." Bailey, on the other hand, paints wildlife in a more traditional manner. In fact, she illustrated all three books about Clifford: "Clifford of Drummond Island," "Return to Manitou" and "Clifford's Bay."

Clifford has a helpful side as well.

"He picks things up if I ask him to and will bring me things," Bailey said.

When Bailey first acquired Clifford, she began keeping a journal of her adventures and struggles training a green horse and shared his stories with a Morgan horse group online.

"They liked the stories and began asking when the book was coming out," Bailey said. "From that point on, I kept the journal with the intent to compile it into a book."

That book was "Clifford of Drummond Island."

Once the book came out, Bailey started touring with Clifford to promote it. But touring with a horse carried its own special challenges, especially since Clifford was being brought inside stores and libraries. After all, a horse's "road apples" probably wouldn't have been a welcome addition to those establishments.

Bailey, however, learned to housetrain Clifford.

"He uses his trailer like an outhouse," she said.

Bailey and Clifford went on a library tour in 2011, which included stops in Marquette, Manistique and Grayling. In fact, Bailey still takes Clifford on tours to spread his special message.

"We talk about respect for life and how to make the world a better place," Bailey said. "I want to concentrate on teaching empathy, that animals have emotions just like people."

A bonus is that Clifford actually signs books for kids too.    Bailey, though, still has to connect with the audience.

"I ask a lot of questions. 'Do you think he is happy to be here? Do you think he is scared to be here?' Things like that," Bailey said.

Bailey also learned Clifford has a special affinity for people with disabilities.

Clifford's normal technique for checking out something is "mouthing," using his lips like an elephant uses its trunk, she said. However, in Grayling, upon coming up to a person in a wheelchair, Clifford was tight-lipped and instead touched her arm.

"The lady couldn't lift her arms," Bailey said, "but Clifford knew that."

Some horses might be on the skittish side, but not Clifford. He likes little kids, heading straight for the smallest ones in a group, and can tolerate being in a busy carnival setting, she said.

"There are very few horses that will go past a moving rollercoaster," Bailey said.

Sheree Terry, owner of Goose Creek Gifts on Drummond Island, said Clifford visited her store several years ago on the Fourth of July and charmed visitors, even signing books with a sponge. It's not every horse that could have come into a small store and not make a mess, but Clifford was an exception.

"He came in here and did not knock anything down," Terry said, and noted the horse even walked backward to leave the store.

Karen Garetano of Huntington, N.Y., a producer of Family Pet Expos, which has shows in Long Island, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, said Clifford performed unique trucks during appearances in her shows, such as heeling, retrieving and taking part in classic K-9 events.

"Clifford was a big hit with the attendees at our events," Garetano said.

Clifford, now 22 years old, is spending the summer in Onondaga as a subject of a documentary. It will be about Clifford's public visits, especially with the elderly and disabled. Bailey is making the documentary with the help of film industry friends downstate.

"I hope that we're having an impact," Bailey said. "The beauty of the program is it is so out of context. I don't know if people will understand the message of empathy and how to change the world, but I do think they remember a horse moving through a library."

To book a Clifford show, email Bailey at justkeeptyping@gmail.com.

Christie Bleck has worked for Michigan newspapers, such as the Lansing State Journal and Niles Daily Star, since the mid-1980s. She is now a freelance writer based in Marquette.

About The Author

Christie Bleck

A guest author for Bridge Magazine.

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