This article appeared in Equus Magazine in 2011.
The library teems with a rainbow of colors as children file in, dressed in the bright t-shirts provided by the summer reading program. The theme stamped on the shirts is, “One World, Many Stories.” The air fairly crackles with excitement, because today they are about to participate in a very special program, “Horse Tales From Around the World.” The host of the program is, yes, a live horse.
“Kids, you need to stay behind the tape!” the head librarian points at a strip of masking tape that
marks the boundary between horse and audience. “We don’t want anyone getting stepped on. Clifford is a full sized Morgan horse and the star of a book, ‘Clifford of Drummond Island’. We will bring Clifford in, in a few minutes. First I want to introduce his owner, Nancy Bailey.”
Bailey steps up next to the librarian and waves at the group of kids. “Hi guys. Just want to say thanks for having us and – oh hey. I forgot the books! We can’t have a library program without books. I left them outside in the suitcase.”
She runs out, while the librarian continues talking. “Clifford is the only horse in the world who signs his own biography. He is an artist. He paints with watercolors and a sponge. The story is about how Nancy acquired him as a two-year-old colt, and – “
“I’ve got the books!” Bailey yells. She runs into the room, toting a wheeled suitcase behind her by the handle. She kneels down and unzips the top. “We can’t have a program in a library without books!”
Bursting out of the suitcase is a black and white border collie, bouncing with energy and unfolding to proportions that make you wonder how he ever squeezed in there. The children scream with glee. “Til!” Bailey shouts. “I told you you couldn’t come!”
Thus begins the lively program featuring Clifford, who later ambles in with Bailey. He’s a chestnut Morgan with a white blaze stamped boldly on his face like an exclamation mark. As Bailey explains about the history of the horse, from early French cave paintings to Leonardo da Vinci’s art, to the Spanish Conquistadors and then Justin Morgan’s horse, Clifford “helps” her by performing tricks, nodding in agreement, and begging for Twizzlers. He finds other things to do, too. “At one library they were having a book sale,” Bailey says. “They had all these paperbacks lined up on a table near us and Clifford just couldn’t leave them alone. He kept going over and selecting one and bringing it to me. He always picked the romance novels. His favorite seemed to be, ‘Elizabeth’s First Kiss.’”
At twenty years old, Clifford is no stranger to the stage. He has performed at various expos, festivals and other events over the years. He is fully house trained and has visited stores, libraries, gift shops, tack shops and nursing homes. He has visited New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois and Ohio as well as Bailey’s home state of Michigan. He cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony for the Morgan Horse Pavilion at Kentucky Horse Park in 2010. Clifford has been featured on TV News, in newspaper and magazine articles, and continues to “wow” thousands of children and adults with his tricks and gentle, engaging personality. Clifford’s tricks include dancing, “heeling off leash”, rearing up, counting and retrieving. Bailey began training him with the clicker method, the same way she worked with her dogs. Always an audience favorite, Clifford would greet a crowd after his performance and sign books. He also raised donations for ForeverMorgans, a non-profit group that rescues horses bound for slaughter.
“He has a special talent for adjusting to the climate of any venue,” Bailey says. “On Christmas Eve, I took him to visit my mother in the nursing home. He went right into her room. Between her bed, the chairs and the doorway, there was barely room for him to turn around in there, but Clifford had already been welcomed into the facility, Cadillac’s Lakeview Lutheran Manor, for a public performance the week prior. Bailey said, “He put on a little show for the guests. It was kind of funny, because the only space they had that they felt was large enough for him was in the chapel!”
Sadly, Nancy’s mother died just a week after Clifford’s last visit. “Mom was so happy to have him there, and it sure was the talk of the entire place thereafter. She got lots of attention from the staff and other residents because of her ‘grandhorse’. I will always be grateful to Clifford for this special memory,” Bailey said.
This year, among Clifford’s other appearances, Bailey is concentrating on libraries. “He does meet and greet with the children and is very good with them. It takes some time for the excitement to settle down enough for kids to listen to a story. That is okay by me. For some, it’s the first time any of them have been close to a horse. The program becomes kind of secondary, as most of them are just patiently waiting to get their hands on him and ask me questions! It’s all good. Clifford enjoys it and the kids do too. I know that because seeing a horse inside a public building is so out of context, they are coming away with an experience they will never forget. My hope is that it will give them a glimmer of insight into the heart of an animal, how they come to be part of your family and are more than a fixture or beast of burden. Having it centered around a library sets a very positive spin on books and reading.”
Bailey says she and Clifford enjoyed spending time on Drummond Island, a rocky sportsmen’s haven in the eastern Upper Peninsula. “It’s been a tough year. We like the travel, but losing Mom has been rough and our farm was foreclosed last fall.”
Bailey’s ten-acre farm in Gregory Michigan had been home to Clifford and his sister, a bay mare named Trudy, for 14 years. “I can’t tell you how hard it is to lose your own place. My heart goes out to everyone who is suffering in this economy. I am fortunate to have friends who have helped me out with Clifford and Trudy, but it gives me a clear perspective on how horses end up bound for slaughter. It’s a great incentive to support ForeverMorgans.”
Meanwhile, Clifford does his best to keep Bailey laughing. “He does it well,” Bailey said. “He’s a tremendous practical joker and has a great sense of humor and fun. I know with Clifford, I can expect the unexpected. But I can trust him to always have the best intentions. After one of our library visits, a lady came up to me and said, ‘I have horses too. And I can tell this one really has a lot of trust in you.’ My immediate response was, ‘I trust him too.’ And that, after all, is the bottom line.”