ROCKY RIDGE, Maryland (Reuters) - The horse is an American icon. It races gracefully, performs heavy farm tasks, can do tricks and, if television is to be believed, may even talk. But only one is an accomplished painter.
Metro Meteor, a 10-year-old thoroughbred bay in rural Maryland, is enjoying singular success. Within just months of applying his first brush stroke to paper, he is juggling requests for public appearances, weighing endorsement offers and earning thousands of dollars for his work.
Slowed by bad knees, the racehorse was retired in 2009 and adopted by Ron and Wendy Krajewski. Unable to ride the crippled horse, Ron, a local artist, decided to teach the horse to paint in order to spend more time with him.
Elephants are known to paint with their trunks, he reasoned, and Metro did tend to bob his head a lot while in his stall.
The paintings caught on, and success ensued. Metro is now the best-selling artist at Gallery 30, a small shop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which started selling his work four months ago.
Metro's paintings feature colorful, sweeping brushstrokes, complete with specks of sawdust - not surprising as the horse paints by swinging his head, a paintbrush clenched in his teeth.
"For his large paintings, there is a waiting list of 120," said Ron Krajewski in an interview this week.
The larger acrylics, 20 inches by 20 inches (51 x 51 cms), sell for $850 at the gallery, he said, and smaller cut-down versions, 5 inches by 7 inches (12.7 x 17.8 cms), are $80.
One of Metro's large paintings sold on eBay for more than $2,000, and bidding for another one on Friday was hovering at $800 with only a few hours to go.
In total, about 40 large and 150 small works have sold, adding up to more than $20,000, Krajewski said.
As the owners say on Metro's website: "Art scholars are not going to have long lengthy discussions trying to decipher the hidden meaning to Metro's paintings. He is a horse.
"It is what it is. A painting you can hang on your wall and tell all your friends it was painted by a horse," they said.
Typically, horse and owner paint for an hour or two, maybe four times a week, Ron Krajewski said, adding that Metro never seems to get bored with the task.
Metro lives at Motter's Station Stables, near Rocky Ridge, a small town in the rolling hills of northern Maryland. An indoor arena doubles as his studio.
One morning this week, the horse demonstrated his technique - interpreted by Wendy Krajewski - to a visitor.
"He'll roll ... he likes to roll," she said, and within minutes, the horse knelt, lay on his side and began to roll on his back.
Then he got to his feet, walked over to his easel and array of paints and wrapped his muzzle around a paintbrush. Friendly and laid-back, he scarcely fit the stereotype of a high-strung thoroughbred.
A former turf sprinter, considered among the fastest at Saratoga and Belmont Park, Metro won about $300,000 during his racing career, his owners said.
When his knees deteriorated, forcing him off the track, the Krajewskis, who owned a percentage of the horse, adopted Metro with plans to use him for casual trail riding. They also own a quarterhorse and another adopted thoroughbred.
The horse was able to take short trail rides, but eventually his weak knees left him unable to support the weight of a rider, they said.
The Krajewskis donate half of Metro's earnings to New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program, a charity that seeks homes and rehabilitation for retired racehorses. The owner of Gallery 30 donates a portion of Metro's profits to a local animal shelter.
"We use the rest to pay for his medical bills," Ron Krajewski said. "The special treatment for his knees is very expensive."
Metro suffers from arthritis, cartilitis or frozen joints, and rapid bone growth, among other health issues.
At first, his prognosis was bleak and if he continued to deteriorate, he could die within two or three years, his owners said.
But recent X-rays showed that an experimental bone remodeling treatment had improved one knee, they said, and treatment on another knee will begin this month.
Metro's popularity has gone national. He has appeared on network television and has received endorsement offers, his owners said.
The volume of business offers prompted the Krajewskis to retain an intellectual property attorney.
Their horse, they noted, is oblivious to earnings and acclaim. As long as he has fresh water and hay, some treats and a pasture where he can nibble grass, run and roll in the dirt, Metro is happy, they said.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst