How A Horse Learned To Paint

By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

The Chicago Tribune recently featured a story on a prolific, up and coming artist that “can turn out six or more abstract art pieces during a 20-minute session.”  The artist is in residence at the Danada Equestrian Center — and he is a horse.

“Nick” is a 22-year-old Appaloosa-Clydesdale who, in a past life, pulled carriages on Mackinac Island, in Michigan.  He was encouraged to paint by volunteers who selected him out of a group of 19 horses.  “Within three weeks” says the Tribune, volunteers “had Nick picking up the paintbrush with his teeth and painting the canvas they lay before him on a hay bale.”

Margaret Gitter, an equestrian assistant that works with Nick, hopes to have Nick’s paintings entered into a competition during an October festival celebrating horses.

Nick is actually the fourth horse from Danada ranch that has learned to paint.  The secret, they say, is carrots.  Maureen Murray was quoted as saying “Retired horses get bored and they like the attention and the treats.”  Over the past decade, the painting program evolved as a way to keep aging horses psychologically active.

Visitors also like Nick, and pay between $5-$15 for one of his paintings.  His paintings are done “with a one-inch-wide brush that has a thick foam pad duct taped to the handle so he can easily and comfortably grip the handle with his teeth.”  Nick grabs a brush loaded with paint with his teeth from the hand of a volunteer and puts the brush to canvas.

According to the Tribune, Nick seems to be motivated by attention almost as much as carrots.  When the crowd is cheering him on, he has been known to paint twice as many pictures in one sitting.

The volunteers taught Nick using a method of positive reinforcement called “clicker training” incorporated into a program wherein successive approximations to painting were gradually reinforced over time.  According to the Tribune, “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, and then to hold it and put his head down.  Finally he learned to swipe the canvas.”

If you are interested in learning more about Nick, be sure to check out the full article for details and let us know what you think in the comments below!  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive new articles, and free monthly issues, directly to your inbox.

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