October 20, 2021
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Johnnie, the equine painter

  • Johnnie, the painter horse, is seen putting some delicate details on one of his latest master pieces as animal trainer extraordinaire and fine artist, Kathleen Sidjakov steadies the canvas. Photo by Robert Grant

By: Irene Hilsendager
July 2, 2021

On a warm delicious, delightful sunny afternoon, among guests and horses, a cool breeze blew through the historic dairy farm set off Adobe Rd. in Petaluma.

Upon entering what looked like an upscale ranch, driving through a very large-shaded arena and walking by several buildings, two beautiful Gypsy Vanner horses were watching as humans strolled by. One such equine was Johnnie. Johnnie is known for being an artist. So how can a Gypsy Vanner, one of the most beautiful horses in the world, be an originator of art-work?

A little history on Gypsy Vanners. They have long flowing hair and very kind eyes. They were bred by the Gypsies, the Romany people of Great Britain. The name Vanner was chosen because it was the horse bred to pull the Gypsy’s family caravan from place to place.

Johnnie has an abundance of flowing hair called “feather” on their legs that start on the knee or hock and goes down over the hoof. Some Gypsy Vanners have and so does Johnnie, a stylish mustache.

Johnnie Gray-Nelson is owned by local author and dog trainer, Camilla Gray-Nelson, who is the founder, president, and director of training at Dairydell Doggie Dude Ranch and Training Center at 2575 Adobe Rd. in Petaluma. Camilla also owns three other Vanners besides Johnnie the artist.

While speaking to Kathy Sidjakov, Johnnie’s teacher, it was surprising to learn that Johnnie had difficulties adapting to “horse things” such as being ridden or carriage driving and wanted nothing to do with regular equine things, as for the riding he was bucking every one off. Johnnie had to find another avenue that he would enjoy.

Camilla hired Kathy Sidjakov, who is an experienced animal trainer and owner of Animal Stars Training to work with Johnnie. 

Gray-Nelson told the story of submitting Johnnies’ canvas art to a prestigious art show along with a resume but subsequently omitted the part about the applicant being Johnnie, the horse. The paintings are bright; some with dark moods and an acceptance was sent to Camilla. When it was explained that Johnnie is a Gypsy Vanner horse, they quickly reversed their invitation to meet the artist.

Getting back to the canvas demonstration Johnnie was working on, it was amazing how he could pick out colors and where to place his paint brush. “Horses don’t see color the way humans do,” says Sidjakov. If you switch from white to black, they are still tones of gray. Kathy S. went on to say that horses see the tones of gray but in blues and yellows they miss the red tones so Johnnie sees red as a particular tone, but he apparently can tell it apart from other colors.

Johnnie now stands in front of the weighted down easel and waits for the pre-dipped brush. With an open mouth he takes the brush, leans in toward the easel and makes large bold strokes from side to side. Some strokes are exceptionally bold and others are little dabs and jabs. Johnnie waits for a refill of the brush but shakes his head no. It was not the blue color he wanted. Sometimes he paints in swirls to fill a corner of the canvas and other times barely using feathering strokes.

Johnnie takes a step back as if to observe what was just finished. Apparently not happy or finished, he signals for another brush which Kathy S. has dipped in green paint.

Many paintings were hung on the walls for display purposes showing off his most impressive works. Johnnie also has stationary, and cards for sale at the nicely decorated sales table.

On July 18 there will be another demonstration with Johnnie showing his talents.

For more information go to or Kathy Sidjakov, pet expert and owner of Animals Stars Dog Training at 707-280-3327 or