One of the best things about the Christmas season is tradition, and every year the Novi Pet Expo kicks it off for us. Even though the pet show happens in mid November (always falling on my birthday weekend), for years Clifford the horse has ushered in the season at the big event, posing with Santa, sporting his elf hat, and painting ornaments.
I was pretty sure Christmas just wasn’t going to be the same without Clifford. But his understudy, Kerry 7th Gen, known fondly as the Junior Horse, had spent the summer polishing up his tricks in order to step into the big hoofprints. He has learned to do a lot of Clifford’s tricks including nodding “yes” and “no”, showing his teeth, counting, and bowing and he had even added the Spanish walk to his repertoire.
One thing that JR couldn’t do was paint. I hadn’t attempted to teach him to push the sponge around. We were slated to go to the Expo under Clifford’s contract, and what the contract promised was a painting horse! In the middle of the Expo offerings, birds and reptiles, llamas and goats, agility dogs and rescued kitties, was a horse who could paint with a sponge and non-toxic pigments.
Thanks to my friends, Lyn and Harry Alban, JR got a ride to Novi from their home near Grand Rapids. They even brought a folding table for him to work on. I had packed all the necessary gear: sponges and neon colors, a thick pad of multi-purpose paper, and the essential star-shaped wooden Christmas ornaments.
JR’s great-uncle Clifford had spent over twenty years promoting literacy and empathy, as well as promoting the Morgan horse, a breed I now learned had become an endangered species. It was, I thought, due not so much a lack of interest in the Morgan, as a growing lack of space. People no longer had acres to live on, and the cost of hay was skyrocketing. Horse ownership was becoming a thing of the past. It was becoming more important to promote horse ownership, the equestrian sports, riding lessons for kids, and the Morgan breed in particular as the horse who could do it all: He is the perfect equine athlete, proficient in eventing, reining, dressage, and virtually anything the larger, more high-maintenance breeds could do. Plus, he was smart and personable. He was a terrific therapy animal and could excel at meet-and-greet events such as the Novi Pet Expo.
With this in mind, it became more important than ever to show that JR could handle the job of painting; that these odd behaviors were not quirks exclusive to one silly gelding, but instead trained tricks to prove the affable nature and intelligence typical of the Morgan breed.
When we first approached the table, I had the sponges already soaked in paint and the paper laid out. I simply said those words I had uttered to Clifford so many times over the years, “Touch it.”
Being a typical curious Morgan, JR took a swipe with his nose and was rewarded with a piece of red licorice.
It didn’t take long for him to catch on. It turned out that he loves to paint. He swirled those sponges so hard he was sending them flying. Little kids crowded around to laugh and stare and pick them up again.
After the first session, every time he came out of the stall, he made a beeline for the painting table. He was more than happy to be involved.
I could not help being a little verklempt. After all, JR had stood by and watched Clifford work at the painting table, over five years’ time. Was he simply waiting for his turn? Did he understand that it was up to him now, to carry on this odd Christmas tradition that made everyone laugh and caused such a stir among the visitors? For sure there was a glimmer of Clifford’s ancestry in his pedigree; might he have captured a bit of that whimsical spirit, as well?
I wasn’t sure. But as the Expo drew to a close after a long and hard-working three-day weekend, when he was still fresh and eager to greet people, and I wrapped my arms around his neck and gave him a grateful hug, I swear he winked at me.