DOVER – Clydesdales have become a worldwide symbol of Budweiser and the full hitch is in town this weekend for the Big Barrel Country Music Festival.
The Clydesdales date back to 1933 when the sons of August A. Busch, Sr., surprised him with a six-horse Clydesdale hitch to celebrate the repeal of Prohibition.
The hitch was sent to New York only a few days later to draw a beer wagon for the company. The horses attracted thousands of spectators and customers who lined up to see the horses and buy Budweiser beer, available for the first time in more than a decade.
After its stop in New York, the hitch toured New England and the mid-Atlantic, making a stop in Washington, D.C., to deliver a case of Budweiser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The Budweiser Clydesdale team was soon increased to eight and in 1950, at the opening of the Newark Brewery, a Dalmatian was introduced as the Budweiser Clydesdales’ mascot. Sixty-five years later, a Dalmatian still travels with each of the Clydesdale hitches.
The fame of the Budweiser Clydesdales and their Dalmatians has continued to increase since. They have appeared in more than 25 Budweiser Super Bowl commercials since 1986.
Budweiser doesn’t allow just any Clydesdale to be featured in the commercials or join the touring team. Each must be a gelding at least four years of age, stand 72 inches at the shoulder when fully mature, weigh between 1,800 and 2,300 pounds, have a bay coat, four white legs, a white blaze and a black mane and tail.
“A lot of people think that Clydesdales only come in the bay color, but they actually come in lots of different colors, but all of ours are only bay with the white blaze and feet,” Mark Weber, a Budweiser Clydesdale handler said.
To the untrained eye, the horses appear to be almost identical.
“They actually all look very different to me. They’re slightly different sizes and you can see, the white comes up a bit higher on some of their legs and they vary in the color of bay, but it’s easiest to tell from their face, each has a unique white blaze,” Mr. Weber said.
“They all have very different personalities and movements too so a lot of times you can tell them apart without really looking at them. I guess telling them apart for me is like being the parent of identical triplets.”
Budweiser’s Clydesdales are bred to perfection at Warm Springs Ranch in Boonville, Mo. and train at Grant’s Farm in St. Louis, Mo. After training, the horses go on to reside at one of three Anheuser-Busch breweries: St. Louis, Mo., Merrimack, N.H. or Ft. Collins, Co.
The hitch visiting Dover calls Merrimack, N.H., home and travels along the East Coast and Midwest but the main stables and official home of the Budweiser Clydesdales is a brick with stained-glass stable built in 1885 at the 100-acre Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis. The building is a historic landmark registered by the federal government.
To stay in tip-top shape, each horse will consume as much as 20 to 25 quarts of whole grains, minerals and vitamins, 40 to 50 pounds of hay and up to 30 gallons of water on a hot day.
“It seems like a lot, but when you’re almost 3,000 pounds, it’s not that much,” Mr. Weber said. “But the diet does vary between horses, each one has a specific diet.”
Each Clydesdale’s harness and collar weighs about 130 pounds and are handcrafted with solid brass, and patent leather. Each harness and collar are individually tailored to fit their Clydesdale like a glove.
Every horse is also fitted with custom horseshoes that measure more than 20 inches from end to end and weigh about five pounds each. Due to the Clydesdales’ enormous size, their shoes are more than twice as long and five times as heavy as the shoe worn by a light horse.
No need to worry though, horseshoes are painless because hooves are made of a nerveless, horn-like substance like fingernails so being fitted for shoes is no more painful than a nail trim.
“At first, their weight and size can seem a little intimidating,” Mr. Weber said. “But after working with them, they’re a very docile breed so to us, it doesn’t feel any different than working with a smaller breed.”
Although the Budweiser Clydesdales aren’t workhorses like their ancestors which were bred to pull up to 1,000 pounds, they don’t just sit pretty. When they make appearances, they pull the antique beer wagon and closely follow the directions of expert drivers.
Each of the horses also has a unique, short name that starts with their mother’s first initial.
“Each of them know their name and they respond to it,” Mr. Weber said. “We can call their name and give them commands and they know what to do. And it’s important because when we get into a crowd, they need to be good at listening to and following instructions.”
And the horses do get into crowds in many different environments. Just last week they were in Hershey, Pa., and next week they’ll be in Ashland, Ohio.
“That’s something that’s so amazing about these horses,” Tyler Wedel, the lone intern on the road said. “They can be at a brewery one week, in a parade the next. They’re just so well trained they are easily adaptable and comfortable in different environments.”
Drivers of the hitch have to control more than 12 tons of horses and wagon. The weight the driver control make for very heavy reigns. Controlling the reigns takes the same amount of strength as carrying and maneuvering a 75-pound weight.
Thousands of requests for the Clydesdales’ appearance are received by Budweiser each year. That keeps the horses and their crew on the road eight to 10 months of the year.
“I’ve worked for NKS for about 10 years now and I’ve never seen them before,” said Troy Hawaneic of Newark. His employer is the local distributer of Budweiser products. “I thought this was a great opportunity to come down and see the horses with my daughter, Ella.”
Transporting the horses across the region isn’t a simple process but Budweiser has gotten it down to a science.
The 10 horses (a hitch contains eight, but two are kept on the road as alternates) and all their gear travel in three 50-foot trailers. The horses’ trailers are equipped with air-cushioned suspension and a thick rubber floor to make for a smoother ride that’s gentle on the joints.
They are even equipped with cameras so drivers and the crew can keep a close eye on the horses throughout the journey. The team stops at a local stable every evening so the giants can get a satisfying night of rest.
The horses are always kept in the care of a traveling team of expert handlers and groomers that ensure the safety and comfort of the team 24/7.
“That’s the most important part of the job to me, making sure they’re safe and well cared for,” Mr. Weber said.
And the horses to get great care. Getting a job as a Budweiser Clydesdale handler is a big commitment and very competitive.
“We have seven handlers that are with the horses full time and we spend at least 70 and sometimes more than 80 hours with them every week,” Mr. Wedel said.
Mr. Wedel has only been with the team for about a month now and is only one of two interns working with the handlers. He was chosen from a pool of more than a thousand applicants.
“I’ve been working with horses all my life and recently graduated from college in Kansas with a degree in Animal Science,” he said.
Mr. Weber is originally from Iowa and was also an intern before becoming a full time handler. He was chosen from about 2,400 applicants.
“Most of our handlers grew up on farms working with horses or have an Animal Science degree with a background of some kind in equine studies,” Mr. Weber said. “It’s very competitive but this field of work is becoming a dying art.”
Aside from care and grooming, the handlers regularly exercise the horses, hand-walking them for at least one hour every day and using a work sled out in the field.
“We saw their truck on the road the other day so we looked up to see where they’d be because I’ve always wanted to see them,” Katie Kiras of Dover said.
She brought her three young children and her niece.
“This is one of the best parts of the job for me,” Mr. Wedel said. “Everywhere we go, you see that look of awe and everyone is just saying ‘wow’ every time.”