From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

A Work of Art

Life is a great big canvas and you should throw all the paint on it you can.

Danny Kaye

I guess it all started when my dad rode a horse into the bar on the Fourth of July.My brother and I were eleven and ten at the time and we were thrilled that our father was part of our small, hometown parade. Dad was a horseman, a clown in the rodeo and full of spirit. He rode bareback, galloping up the main drag in the parade. When he got to the intersection, he placed that horse in a controlled rear, and then rode him up three brick steps and into the bar. Dad ordered a shot and a beer and the horse got a pretzel. We already thought our dad was the greatest, but now he was so cool.

As a child, I was a dancer on the Tony Grant’s Stars of Tomorrow Show. For two weeks almost every summer I performed up to five shows daily in Atlantic City, New Jersey, home of the Steel Pier andmy next vividmemory of a horse. In a phenomenal feat of showmanship, the pier’s famous Diving Horse and a tiny young woman, clad in nothing more than a swimsuit and helmet, would dive bareback from a platform thirty feet in the air.

The horse would surface and walk up the ramp with the female daredevil still on his back and stand proudly while the rider removed her helmet, flinging her long, blonde hair in the salt-air breeze. The crowd would go wild and without fail, horse and rider were greeted by an elderly lady holding a bucket filled with carrots. I carefully scheduled my free time between my own performances to watch these exciting dives. The horses were fearless and the girls that rode the horses weremy absolute idols. Itwas an exciting showthat cemented my respect and awe for these powerful creatures.

Many years later, I ended up in Truckee, California, where I founded the Truckee Ballet and I was ready for a horse of my own. I remembered what my father always told me, “If you ever get a horse, get a Quarter Horse,” and I planned on doing just that. “Well-broke, five-year-old gelding Buckskin Quarter Horse Mustang 15.2-hands, $1,200,” the ad read. The cowboys had named him Cholla after one of the worst things in the desert, the cholla cactus. He followed me instantly, without the lead line and let me groom him and pick up his feet. The rancher explained Cholla was eighteenmonths oldwhen they gelded him and that he was proud-cut. They broke him by sacking him out; a cruel, but common process. I can’t imagine what a fight that was, but I know Cholla has never forgotten it. A few days later, the rancher delivered Cholla and the relationship between a novice horse owner and a time-bomb of a horse began.

Owning a sacked-out mustang is fraught with trials and tribulations. In the beginning, he hated any kind of rope, forceful men, trailers, horseshoers—the list was a long one. Gradually, I was able talk him through fearful situations. His intelligence now tells him that he is well taken care of and capable of trust. I’d like to say that I trust him completely, but I can’t quite say that. Cholla shows love and trust toward me, but he is fearless—ready to explode into instinctive survival mode at any time. But his equine attributes pale in comparison to his most appealing and amazing talent.

One day Iwas painting the corral fencewithCholla following rightwithme, step-by-step.Watching the procession,my husband called out, “Why don’t you get that horse to paint the fence?” so I tacked a piece of paper to the fence and showed Cholla one stroke. To our amazement and delight, he understood. Yes, Cholla paints—and not fences. His medium is watercolor and he paints at his easel holding an artist’s brush with his teeth. What’s more, he loves doing it. What’s better, he’s actually good at it.When he seesme bringing the easel he licks and paws in excited anticipation. His greatest limitation— the lack of opposable thumbs—requires that I put the paint on the brush before Cholla takes it from me, but once loaded, Cholla goes straight to his easel. He may not choose the color, but Cholla decides where that color is going to go. With very deliberate and precise strokes, he creates images that are one of a kind. I’ve seen him roll the brush in his teeth to create a beautiful stroke. Other than loading the brush with paint, no one assists Cholla with his art. No one rotates the paper or moves the easel while Cholla is painting. His creations are his.

Cholla’s talent has gained him international notoriety. His work is shown in galleries and purchased by collectors.He has been profiled in horse magazines and his art was featured when I appeared as a guest on MARTHA. I presented Martha Stewartwith a framed original that Cholla had painted the day she was released fromAlderson. It is abstract, but the image of a horse drinking champagne is quite clear and Martha recognized this, asking the audience, “Do you see it?” She showed her appreciationwith a parting gift ofwatercolors and brushes for Cholla.

As a dancer, I know that art manifests itself as we create and that themore one’s creativity is acknowledged, themore it develops—be it man or beast. I cannot explain Cholla’s desire, let alone his ability, to express himself by painting. Is his work the manifestation of the essence of other artists or a physic premonition, or an ancestral memory? I cannot say. But if someday, I find him practicing pliés at the barre in his stall, I’m calling Martha!

Renee Chambers

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