Budweiser Clydesdales turn heads again

Dec 23, 2011

Cheering fans, tour dates, worldwide recognition, personal trainers, television commercials and product affiliation are associated with country music superstars whose entertainment venues range from coliseum performances to state fairs. They are also associated with a different breed of performers logging thousands of miles in their touring vans. Actually, these other performers, 30 traveling Budweiser Clydesdales, have ‘tons’ in common with other nomadic entertainers.

These international ambassadors began their association with Anheuser- Busch in Saint Louis, MO, in 1933. Seventy-eight years later, the Budweiser Clydesdales each keep the road hot year-round throughout the country appearing at parades, sporting events, rodeos, benefits, business openings, NA- SCAR races and more. This fall, the St. Louis Hitch performed at the World Series playoff games at Busch Stadium as their hometown team, the Cardinals, batted their way towards the Championship.

Grant’s Farm is home to the St. Louis hitch. Seven more Clydesdales also make their permanent Missouri residence there for public viewing, demonstration, retirement or casting call.

Some serve also as backup horses for the traveling hitches. Budweiser Clydesdales must be bay geldings with black manes and tails, a blaze face , four white stockings with ‘feathers’ and stand at least 18 hands tall.

The East Coast Hitch is based out of Merrimack, NH, where the Budweiser Clydesdales’ training facility is located. Training begins at age 2 or 3, continuing until the horses are 4-1/2, ready to join a hitch. Graduates’ initial trips with the team are to gain road experience, seeing all the action surrounding them. They may be hooked up to seasoned horses depending on the performance.

Fort Collins, CO, claims the West Coast Hitch who spent several weeks in California this December on a commercial production. All three hitches bring 10 horses on the road; eight are hooked up for performances and two, oftentimes young horses, are backups.

About half of the hitch personnel drives the Clydesdales. Daily care of the horses and equipment plus hitching the team is shared by all the drivers and handlers who are all licensed to drive the vans hauling the horses, equipment and feed. Dedicated crews who are wholly familiar with each horse and their individual traits factor tremendously into the longevity and success of the Budweiser Clydesdales.

“Our typical week on the road usually involves two travel days, then a prep day to get stalls, banners, etc., set up. Every horse is washed from head to toe, clipped and groomed,” explained John Nisley who works with the Budweiser Clydesdales’ St. Louis Hitch. “We often hook up and do an exhibition. Folks of all ages and backgrounds are drawn to these Clydesdales. Little kids like to fill their water buckets; it’s a big deal. Visiting with lots of neat people makes this job fun. At big ranch rodeos, folks using their horses for work especially like to learn about these guys.”

“On show day, every horse gets its legs washed, feathers cleaned and they’re groomed with a vacuum. Two guys spend four hours cleaning harness brass and leather. Each harness is worth about $10,000, so the hitch doesn’t perform if it’s raining to prevent tarnishing the brass.”

These road warriors probably log more miles and spend more days on the road than any other group of show horses. Keeping them sound for performance schedules means consistent horseshoeing, feed and exercise schedules and comprehensive herd health programs.

The Clydesdales are shod every six weeks with leather pads. Since the horses are frequently on asphalt, their farriers use plus Drill Tech and borium on the bottom of each size 8½ –9 shoe for better traction on slick surfaces.

The horses are walked an hour daily, sometimes up and down streets of smaller towns where folks congregate quickly. Now and again a handler might ride a seasoned Clydesdale while ponying two others on each side. On the road, the horses can be turned out in arenas for exercise. At home, pulling sleds helps prepare for their upcoming shows.

Good feed and vitamins fuels these big horses. Previously, the team used to get timothy or grass hay locally at performances because space on vans was limited. Currently, they are trying something new with hay acquisition.

“Texas grass hay compared to New York grass hay can be completely different. Recently, we began contracting hay from an Idaho farm that compresses bales of timothy hay and ships it to us at each stop,” explained Nisley. “Now all our hay is grown by one farmer that sets aside pastures just for the Budweiser Clydesdales.”

The Budweiser Clydesdales have had a consulting veterinarian for 30 years. "These horses do pretty well in the health department."

The horses occasionally become picky about drinking, mainly in areas of Florida with high sulfur and salt in the water. "We just ‘call the Culligan Man’ who treats the water so the horses will drink it," Nisley said.

These mellow animals don’t appear to have an excitable bone in their bodies when seen lounging around in their stalls at an event. But show time? That’s a different story; they love their job, the excitement, the attention and the people coming to see them.

Most of the Budweiser Clydesdales retire about the age of 14–15. But then there’s Sammy, who is 17 and still going strong—literally.

“He’s the oldest horse on the hitch but acts like he’s the youngest during performances. Sammy’s like ‘Old Faithful,’ a trooper,” described Nisley. “He’s the hardest pulling horse on the hitch; he’s wanted to pull since he was about 3 or 4. When you put his harness on, it’s ‘Heads up, time to work.’” “He makes a better horse of the other lead horse and disciplines the younger horses. Sammy’s about ready to retire, but his feet and health are still good. He’s never been sick a day in his life, and never shows any signs of not wanting to work. He drives the best and is all business. When he’s grumpy, he may walk where he wants to walk; but not on the hitch. He loves it and you can always count on him. Even during Mardi Gras parades with the spectators in the streets.”

Photo courtesy Michael Schumacher/ Amarillo Globe-News.

“Sammy’s mostly laid back but he’s real aggressive when hitched up. We have to have a good feel for the reins to keep the horses from pulling too much; but, obviously, we don’t want them to pull us off the wagon. Sammy’s 1,800 00 pounds can pull hard enough to make you want to cry and he wears your arm out until it’s numb. After an exhibition, you’re usually pretty well shot; he can make you feel pretty small.”

Since 1967, many of these horses have appeared in renowned Budweiser commercials. Robin Wiltshire does all the training for them in California and at his ranch in Wyoming. Their 2006 commercial, “Clydesdale’s American Dream,” garnished the Creative Emmy Award. Five years later, that colt is now on the road fulfilling that American Dream Celebrities in their own right, the hitches have also afforded their handlers and drivers to meet some famous folks.

“Saint Louis fans are passionate about the Cardinals.

On opening day of the World Series playoffs, the Budweiser Clydesdales led the parade with Tony LaRussa aboard. They performed at each home game. Players coming onto the field walked up to pet the horses and have conversations with us,” said Nisley who did some of the driving during the games. “I probably wouldn’t be able to do that if I wasn’t working with these horses. It may never happen again in my life, but who knows, it might happen again next year!” Is it all pull and no play for the Clydesdales? They go home for some R & R over the holidays, do some photo shoots and Christmas parades, then get ready for college bowl game parades.

With their worldwide notoriety, does the verse from the C&W song: ‘When you’re a celebrity, it’s Adios Reality’ apply? Neigh for the Budweiser Clydesdales. They know which side their oats are crimped on and don’t play the ‘fame card.’ These imposing superstars still put their harness on ‘one collar at a time.’ — Ginger Elliott, WLJ Correspondent