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Bond between horses, humans celebrated at Chilao School’s annual ‘Models in the Mountains’

At Chilao School — a former land holding of La Cañada Unified School District set deep into the hillsides of the Angeles National Forest — a group of horse fans spent a weekend expressing their devotion to all things equine.

The festivities began Friday with a sculpting class led by San Diego-area artist Susan Sifton, who creates original horse sculptures for well-known model company Breyer Animal Creations. On Saturday, collectors showed off their original and custom pieces in the site’s annual “Models in the Mountains” live model horse show.

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Corina Roberts, a caretaker who lives on the property under the aegis of the nonprofit group Redbird, has organized the weekend event for the past four years to provide an outlet for horse model enthusiasts to celebrate a shared passion.

“We’ve managed to make this hobby more fun than your average plate collection,” Roberts said. “At this level, most of us don’t just collect [models], we take them out and play with them. It’s a very social thing.”

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For Friday’s class, Sifton created a series of wire armatures, metal frameworks around which sculptors could add styling clay in various poses. She worked with a handful of students, offering pointers on proportion, line and musculature.

Sifton practically lucked into the trade years ago when, as a sketcher for the Department Fish and Wildlife, she was asked to help create sculptures for a trail for the blind. She became intrigued by sculpting and landed a commercial mold-making apprenticeship that led to her work with Breyer.

A lifelong horseman, Sifton often creates sketches from live models she watches closely until a particular posture emerges.

“That comes from watching the horses and getting that ‘aha’ moment,” she said. “I don’t know any other way to do it.”

Shani Ghyst came from San Bernardino with 8-year-old daughter Vicki Hefty to attend Friday’s class. Ghyst tried her hand at sculpting a mule while Hefty created a unicorn-Pegasus combo.

Ghyst owns live horses but has been collecting Breyer horse models since she was 7 or 8. Taking a sculpting class with a legend like Sifton and picking her brain was a great opportunity, she said.

“I’ve been doing this for years and now my daughter’s starting to get into it,” Ghyst said of the weekend event. “Let’s be honest, we’re just a bunch of adults playing with plastic horses. We’re here to have fun.”

Roberts says the hand-painted Breyer models are like canvasses people customize by repainting or rearranging legs, manes and even heads. The art form is an outlet for people who love horses but may not be able to keep them.

Roberts grew up riding horses in Simi Valley in the 1970s, when ranches still outnumbered planned developments. She never got over her affection for the creatures, even when times and personal circumstances precluded her from keeping them.

Over the years, Roberts has built up a model collection of more than 600 pieces, ranging from small rubber figurines to one or two of the company’s more valuable Connoisseur series models.

“These models don’t just sit on shelves, they go places. Literally,” she said.

Horse model photography is more than mere portraiture — it’s become its own art form with artists placing models in real environments for a realistic effect.

Outside, participants Saige Pantoja and Malia Booker used the rugged chaparral landscape outside Chilao’s one-room schoolhouse for a horse model photo shoot. Owing to the pair’s keen eye for perspective and proportion, the finished photos look convincingly life-like.

Sifton said horsemen and model enthusiasts alike are drawn to the creatures for the special bonds they form with humans.

“Horses in a herd will pick one best friend,” she said. “The best thing in the world is when they pick you.”

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