I never imagined my gelding would make our local news, but then Thor of Hopehaven isn’t your average horse. For starters, he’s an American Sugarbush Harlequin Draft, a rare breed created in the 1950s by crossing Appaloosas with draft types. True to his breed, Thor is 16.3 hands tall with a colorfully spotted coat and a great disposition.
Foaled on our farm, Thor was imprinted at birth and handled daily. He was exceptionally playful, with a penchant for picking things up in his mouth and cavorting about with them. That got me thinking about trick training.
Thor Learns a Thing or Two
I started by putting grain in an old sock and encouraging him to smell and mouth it. Each time he moved his muzzle or teeth against that sock, I’d say, “Pick it up” and give him a treat. It took him just a few times to get the idea; before long he was picking the sock up from the ground and giving it to me.
Next we moved on to an old baseball cap, then a horse-friendly ball. Soon I could toss the ball and he’d trot out to retrieve it. About this time, I realized this horse really loved to learn and was actually eager to try new things. He’d bring feed bowls to me, or pick up a lead rope that had fallen on the ground. He even held the lead of our mini donkey, Jenny, while her feet were being trimmed. Still, little did I know just how clever he truly was.
He grew up to become a fantastic trail horse, as well. We do a lot of horse camping, and I enjoy showing off his tricks to other trail riders around the campfire at night. He can do two different kinds of bows, shake hands, “smile,” and nod yes, among other tricks.
Once, while we were practicing the mailbox obstacle for a trail-class competition, Thor reached out and mouthed the mailbox lid open. That gave me an idea for a new trick, and within 10 minutes he was opening and closing the mailbox and lifting the flag. It’s one of his favorite tricks—and it was his own idea!
An ill friend of mine, hearing about the mailbox trick, said she’d love to see Thor do the Spanish walk (exaggerated front-leg movements) up to the mailbox, then open and close it. It took him just two weeks to learn the walk, then I shot a video of the whole routine and shared it with my friend.
A different friend posted a video of a horse bringing a guy a drink out of a cooler. “Do you think Thor could do that?” she asked. I gathered the supplies, then taught my gelding this trick in 30 minutes. I posted a video right back to her with my reply, “Well, what do you think?”
An Inner Artist Emerges
Thor’s artistic potential came to light one day by accident. Standing in the crossties, he noticed an old paintbrush lying atop a nearby sawhorse and simply reached over and picked it up. That got my wheels turning! I bought a few art canvases, a new paintbrush and some paint, and we set to work.
How long did it take? Well, he created his first painting that same day. I picked the colors and handed him the dipped brush; he did the rest. Since then, his many and varied talents have made him something of a local celebrity. Our NBC affiliate did a feature on him, as did RFD-TV. He’s also painted publicly at local events. Many of his pieces have sold to admirers; others we’ve donated to raise funds for equine rescue.
Glamour aside, Thor—now 9—remains a trail horse at heart, and we love him for that. Still, it’s fun for my grandsons and granddaughter to be able to tell people their grandma taught a horse how to paint paintings!
Dorinda Hennings lives on a nine-acre farm in Lizella, Georgia, with her husband, David. When not trail riding or helping Thor paint, she enjoys showing him in halter, trail, and Western classes. For more on the American Sugarbush Harlequin Draft Horse, go to sugarbushharlequindraft.com. To learn more about Thor, go to bit.ly/paintinghorse or check his Facebook page, “Thor the painting horse.”.