Larger Than Life: The Budweiser Clydesdales

Icon? Sentiment? A wish for simpler times? Harnessing of strength and power? What is it that makes the Budweiser Clydesdales so popular among people the world over? Even people who have never touched a horse exclaim in awe when they first see one of Anheuser-Busch's eight-horse hitches of Budweiser Clydesdales or have a chance to get close to one of these special horses. The Clydesdale TV commercials created by Anheuser-Busch are discussed at work, circulated via e-mail, and even a few laughs and tears are shed over their content, which often contains no humans except as a backdrop for the animals.

We are going to take you behind the scenes of the Budweiser Clydesdales--one of the most recognized corporate symbols in the world--for an up-close and personal look at them and the people who manage them across the country.

History of the Breed

Prior to the advent of the mechanized age, most goods were hauled to market by horse-drawn wagons. Produce from farms was brought to towns and cities, or to the railheads in later times, by the sheer brute strength of big horses.

A Budweiser Clydesdale hitch consists of eight horses. The first two horses closest to the wagon pull most of the weight. Those "wheel" horses are usually bigger than the other horses on the hitch for that simple reason. The next pair out from the wagon, the "body horses," will also bear some of the burden, and they are slightly smaller than the wheel pair. Then you have a slightly smaller team in the middle called the "swing team." The two horses in front are called the "lead team" and are the smallest horses on the hitch.

The lead horses generally are not as heavy-bodied and have a higher leg action. They are the "show" horses of the hitch that give the flash to the team. With all that fire, they also must be obedient in order to take direction from the driver, who handles about 40 pounds of reins to control the eight horses. When the tension on the reins is taken into consideration, the drivers--who are rigorously trained--end up with the equivalent of about 75 pounds pulling on their arms.

As it happens when you get more than one horse person in the same place, hitch drivers know how to show off the best traits of their teams and how to compete with one another. That might be figure eights around obstacles, backing, "spin the top" (where the horses move around in a circle with the wagon pivoting on its back wheels) or the docking maneuver (where the hitch turns back on itself, keeping the wagon stationary), which is the most difficult part of the driver's performance.

In busy city streets prior to and even after automobiles made their appearance, you couldn't block the roads with your horses while unloading wagons. So, drivers taught teams to back up to a loading dock, then maintain the wagon in place while the entire team swiveled around to be parallel with the road--all without moving the wagon from the dock. Hence, the term "docking maneuver" was established.

According to the Clydesdale Breeders U.S.A. (, the official registry of the breed, Clydesdales as we know them today developed along the banks of the River Clyde in Lanarkshire (formerly known as Clydesdale), Scotland. They were descendants of the Great Flemish Horse, and they were renowned for their ability to pull loads of more than one ton at a walking speed of five miles per hour. The early heavy horses were originally bred as mounts for knights in armor.

Scottish farmers in the 1700s began using some of the big English and Flemish stallions to cross with their smaller mares, and thus the Clydesdale was born. It was developed to be a powerful horse with a long stride and a big foot that was suited for walking on the soft Scottish soils.

In the mid-1800s, Canadians of Scottish descent brought the first Clydesdales to the United States, where they performed work on farms and were used to pull heavy loads. Like most horse breeds, their popularity waned with the advent of the tractor and automobile, but in recent years the breed has been rebounding. The breed association says the United States has the largest number of registered Clydesdales, with Canada, Great Britain, and Australia following. There are more than 600 Clydesdales registered in the United States annually.

The breed association notes that the strength, agility, and docility of the Clydesdale makes it a good all-around horse for driving and riding.

Mature Clydesdales will weigh between 1,600-2,400 pounds. They are mostly bay or brown, but they can be black, sorrel (chestnut), or roan. Most have white blazes on their faces and white on their legs, but that isn't a requirement for registration or showing. Clydesdale foals weigh 110-180 pounds at birth, and their dams produce up to 100 pounds of milk per day. The foal can gain up to four pounds a day during its first months of life.

Have Clydesdale, Will Travel

The first hitch of Budweiser Clydesdales appeared in 1933. Shortly after the repeal of Prohibition, August A. Busch Jr. presented a hitch of Clydesdales and a red, white, and gold Studebaker beer wagon to his father to commemorate the first bottle of post-Prohibition beer brewed in St. Louis, Mo., where the company is headquartered. The elder Busch had the hitch sent to New York City by train, where it picked up two cases of Anheuser-Busch beer at New Jersey's Newark Airport. The beer was taken in the horse-drawn wagon to Al Smith, former governor of New York and a leader in the Prohibition repeal process.

From there, the original hitch toured New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. It even delivered a case of beer to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House.

The first Budweiser Clydesdale hitch initially traveled by train to various locations to represent Anheuser-Busch. Additional Budweiser Clydesdale hitches were added over the years. Today, there are five eight-horse hitches traveling throughout the country most of the year. Each traveling hitch has its own custom-designed tractor-trailers to haul the horses, professional Clydesdale handlers, the wagons, and thousands of dollars in harnesses and equipment.

Jim Poole, general manager of Clydesdale Operations for Anheuser-Busch and a 20-year veteran with the company, says the company gets more than 1,000 requests a year for appearances. Each hitch is on the road about 300 days a year, and combined, the hitches travel close to 200,000 miles each year. The Budweiser Clydesdales make appearances at events such as the Rose Bowl Parade and Super Bowl, plus fairs and equine events across North America. They have made overseas appearances in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Japan. They have traveled to Puerto Rico and Alaska, and there have been visit requests from as far away as China and Russia.

The Budweiser Clydesdale hitches also make routine stops at hospitals and senior citizens' facilities.

One of the most memorable trips for one of the hitches' traveling teams was when then-Chairman of the Board August Busch III opened the New York Stock Exchange in 2000, recalls Poole. "The hitch was brought up outside on a big red carpet that covered the whole street. Everyone came out of the Stock Exchange to see the hitch," he says.

The five traveling hitches are based in St. Louis, Menifee and San Diego, Calif., Merrimack, N.H., and San Antonio, Texas. The Budweiser Clydesdales can be viewed in their stables at the St. Louis, Merrimack, and Ft. Collins, Colo. breweries. They also can be seen at Grant's Farm near St. Louis. The 281-acre property is the ancestral home of the Busch family, and part of it is used as a Clydesdale breeding facility.

Other places to view Budweiser Clydesdales are at various Anheuser-Busch theme parks, such as Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., and Tampa, Fla., and at the Sea World theme parks in Orlando, Fla., San Diego, and San Antonio.

Each eight-horse hitch actually travels with 12 horses. Horses take turns staying at home and traveling to ensure each horse has time for proper rest and relaxation. Retirement dates are determined by Clydesdale Operations in consultation with veterinarians.

The company's hitches and horse facilities are staffed with Clydesdale handlers and drivers who have either been around draft horses or other equine breeds all their lives. For example, Alesa Chrisman is a former Nebraska Miss Rodeo. She brought out a "growing" star in the Budweiser Clydesdale stables in St. Louis during our visit. Chrisman, who has been with the operation for less than a year, showed off Jake, a 4-year-old gelding who already stands close to 20 hands high.

An interesting note is that everyone with the traveling hitches must have a commercial driver's license in order for them to drive the "big rigs." Many experienced horse people have gone to truck driving school in order to be considered for employment with the Budweiser Clydesdales.

"They have to have people skills, horse skills, common sense, and a good work ethic," to get a job with the Budweiser Clydesdales, says Poole. "They are so committed to working here they go out and get truck driver training, like Alesa. We have up to 30-year veterans working with the hitches."

As far as quality of care, Poole states unequivocally, "There is the Budweiser way of doing things, and other ways. It's been successful since 1933, so there's no reason to change it."

High-quality feeds and facilities and top-notch care are the only acceptable standards. And while the jobs with the traveling hitches aren't easy, they are highly desired. Poole says those folks often work long days at shows, and they are on the road most of the year. But, he adds, Anheuser-Busch is "a fantastic company to work for.

"All of our people are great ambassadors, it's a very high-profile job," Poole says.

Dick Rosen is administrative manager of Clydesdale Operations. Rosen has a horse background similar to many other staff members. He was raised working with Belgian horses in Minnesota, where his father drove teams. He began working right out of high school driving the horse-drawn trolleys at Disney, he traveled with the Disney hitch for a time, and then he worked on the Budweiser Clydesdales traveling hitch from St. Louis before spending eight years with the San Antonio hitch. While he enjoys his administrative duties in St. Louis, he admits that he misses the hands-on horse care that he says is "more than just a job, it's a lifestyle."

Rosen agrees that the hitch personnel are ambassadors. He recalls being at the Texas State Fair in Dallas getting ready for the evening parade by washing legs behind the stalls (a daily task). He saw a large group of people walk past, then some turned around to come back to where he was. Former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev had seen the Budweiser Clydesdales and wanted to ask why the horses were on display and what they were doing.

"He left his group because the horses caught his eye and he wanted to talk to us," says Rosen.

Dave Hennen, Manager of Field Operations, also has a background with Belgian horses in Minnesota. He is in charge of supplies for all of the Budweiser Clydesdale facilities and traveling hitches. From the big rigs to feed tubs, from thousands of dollars in harnesses to hoof picks, he's in charge of maintaining the supply line. He constantly is looking for new technology to make the work of the horses and employees easier. He also coordinates the movement of horses and personnel from various locations.

Another of Hennen's jobs is to coordinate special projects, such as commercials. He's on hand to liaison with the director and producer, and he often offers suggestions for how to work with the horses. His job also is to maintain the Anheuser-Busch quality standards.

"I don't think there's a better horse job around," says Hennen, reiterating a theme that was heard throughout the organization. "Anheuser-Busch is great to employees, and they'll do anything for these horses."

Poole recalls when the company did the "Clydesdales Respect" commercial in remembrance of Sept. 11. New York City officials closed the Brooklyn Bridge in order for them to shoot the commercial (see cover image). The commercial was aired only once, during the 2002 Super Bowl, but it remains one of the most memorable and touching commercials ever to air on television. The company still receives letters of appreciation from customers about the ad.

The time required to train Clydesdales to star in commercials varies depending on the roles producers want the horses to play. Generally, four to eight weeks of training is needed. The horses are selected based on availability and are usually young--three to four years old. The company uses three horses as the main "actors," with younger horses playing the "supporting roles." Matt, Marty, and Chris, the main actors, are some of the most recognized horses in the world through their work with commercials that are frequently aired during the Super Bowl.

"During commercial shoots, the production people are never waiting on the Clydesdales," says Hennen. "They're always ready to go."

Management and Care

Veterinary and foot care are big parts of the Budweiser Clydesdales' overall management program. Dallas Goble, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, a professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee, became a veterinary consultant for the Budweiser Clydesdales in October 1981, and now he consults on the overall health program.

"Dr. Dennis Geiser and I submitted a proposal to Clydesdale Operations in response to their seeking proposals for a national herd health program," recalls Goble. "Our proposal was selected and approved by the company, and the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine has been monitoring the health program for the last 25 years.

"The most important health concerns of draft horses are similar to other horses in that gastrointestinal problems (such as colic), laminitis, and lameness are the most frequent problems encountered," notes Goble. "Budweiser Clydesdales have ailments similar to the other draft horses, as well as horses in general.

"One of the concerns we address on a regular basis is that of travel stress," he notes. "We probably travel more miles and spend more days on the road per year than any other group of show horses. As a result of that fact, we address travel stress very seriously and attempt to reduce it at every opportunity."

Goble says the comprehensive herd health program has evolved over the last 25 years.

"This program has significantly reduced health problems and extended the healthy working life of the hitch horses," he says. "The health program will continue to change to meet the needs of the Budweiser Clydesdales, as well as utilize the newest information and innovations in equine veterinary medicine. The health plan is not static, and it changes as equine health issues change."

"We have home base veterinarians at the different hitch locations who are responsible for preventive herd health programs," Goble says.

Additionally, horse health issues on the road are addressed by local veterinarians.

"I act as a consultant for information and advice to these veterinarians when the need arises," he says. "When necessary, issues related to horse health care are referred to an equine hospital or clinic for in-depth treatment."

Goble says he's had "many rewarding experiences" in working with the Budweiser Clydesdales. "I think the most gratifying experience overall is the true dedication Anheuser-Busch, as a company, gives to providing the best of care for their horses," states Goble. "In all facets of hitch operations, the first question to answer is always, 'What is best for the horses?' If it is not in the best interest of the horses, then the question is not given further consideration."

Goble adds, "It has been a rewarding experience being associated with Clydesdale Operations for 25 years. Initiating a comprehensive health program, then observing the dividends resulting from that program, has shown the value of health care planning in veterinary medicine.

"The most important factor in the health care program, however, is the daily care, observation, and dedication to the horses by the employees," Goble continues. "They are the most important link in the health and care of the horses, and they are the ones that deserve the credit for the success of this program."

As you can imagine, care of the horses' dinner plate-sized feet is critical. Poole notes that the horses are trimmed and shod every five to six weeks by a team of farriers who travel to the various permanent sites where there are Budweiser Clydesdales on display. In all of the hitches and on all of the farms, there are personnel who can pull and reset a shoe if needed between farrier visits.

Poole's office is located at the St. Louis headquarters. As is true with all of the folks who work in Clydesdale Operations, he is a horse person. Specifically, he grew up in Canada with a family that had horses, and he showed Belgian and occasionally Clydesdale hitches.

It was while showing drafts that Poole met some of the Anheuser-Busch drivers and handlers. The rest, as they say, is history. He had a stint as a traveling hitch supervisor, then he relocated to St. Louis.

(In an interesting side note, the author saw Poole when as a teen with his father he was driving one of the eight-horse hitches combined into an 18-horse hitch at the Calgary Stampede in the mid-1970s.)

Budweiser Breeding

Anheuser-Busch breeds many of the horses appearing in the hitches. A Budweiser Clydesdale used in a hitch must be a gelding that's at least four years old, stands at least 18 hands when fully mature, weighs between 1,800 and 2,300 pounds, and is bay in color with four white stockings, a white blaze on his face, and black mane and tail. Horses that don't meet these strict criteria are in great demand by other Clydesdale owners and breeders.

"We have a long waiting list," says Poole. "We're very strict where they go." Budweiser Clydesdales don't have to be bred by the company, however. A few that meet the strict criteria are purchased each year for hitches or breeding from private farms in the United States, Canada, or overseas.

There are approximately 285 Budweiser Clydesdales across the country. There are about 30 Clydesdale foals born each year to the broodmare band owned by Anheuser-Busch. Poole says that number will double in the next two to three years as the company expands its program to include showing individual horses in competition. In 2006, Budweiser Clydesdales won their classes at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colo., and two were named champion mare and supreme champion stallion at that show.

Anheuser-Busch operates breeding facilities at Grant's Farm in St. Louis and in Menifee. With the recent acquisition of 350 acres in the Columbia, Mo., area, the Clydesdale breeding operation will be expanded in Missouri so that it becomes a world-class facility offering artificial insemination and natural cover.

Poole says there isn't much time, space, or equipment for commercial breeding (to outside mares) at the current facilities. That probably will change with the new farm.

Over the last 25-30 years, Poole says, the body type of Clydesdales has changed. Original horses were stockier, and now mainstream Clydesdale breeders are looking for taller, "leggier" horses. That is not what Anheuser-Busch is looking for. They want horses that are stockier, heavier, taller, and those that can withstand traveling.

Mares and foals are often on display at various locations. For that reason, foals are born throughout the spring and summer. Foals are weaned at about five to 5½ months of age and kept at their foaling locations until they are about two years old. They then are sent to either the Fort Collins Clydesdale hamlet or trained on the breeding farms. After a young horse is familiarized with harness and pulling by himself, he can be teamed with an older, "wiser" companion in harness to learn how teams work. Budweiser Clydesdales are not put in the hitches until they are at least four years of age.

Karen Bippus is a head groom at the Grant's Farm breeding facility. She's been a horse person all her life, and as a teen she learned to drive Clydesdales from a neighbor. "This is my dream job," says Bippus as she feeds, bathes, and grooms her way through a morning with the big stallions and geldings on display.

Cash and Avalanche are the two stallions at the farm. They enjoyed bucking and playing in their paddocks prior to their morning bathing ritual that includes serious scrubbing of their legs and under their feathers (the long hairs that cover the feet). Scratches (dermatitis under the feathers) is a common problem in draft horses that owners combat. The morning of our visit, Bippus had Castile bar soap (made exclusively from vegetable oil) in her wash water that she used to scrub each horse's legs. This is a product many of us might remember seeing in our grandmother's pantry.

The Grant's Farm facility has several paddocks and pastures of various sizes sporting white plastic fencing, automatic waterers, and run-in sheds. There are three barns, one of which is open to visitors and contains the stallions and photo-op geldings, ribbons from recent show wins, and a small gift shop (with very reasonably priced Budweiser Clydesdale items). There are a couple of sand arenas for turnout.

Two of the Budweiser Clydesdale television commercial "stars" were in residence at Grant's Farm during our tour, Matt and Sammy. Their jobs that day were to pose for digital pictures with visitors to the farm.

Wendy Hicks of Indiana, a horse handler for the photos, formerly was a veterinary technician at Cornell University. She loves handling the gentle giants and showing them off to visitors. After one shot with a family, she scratched the patient Sammy in his favorite spot as a reward.

Take-Home Message

The Budweiser Clydesdales are probably the most-recognized industry "spokespersons" in the world. When people think of Budweiser, they think of Clydesdales, and vice versa. For the horse industry, Anheuser-Busch has created world ambassadors for all horses. They are admired by horse lovers who know and understand the amount of care that goes into breeding, training, driving, and competing these heavy horses, and by children who are in awe of the gentle giants whose heads are bigger than they are. They are TV stars, admirable ambassadors, and horses with special jobs. Like the people who work with the horses, the Budweiser Clydesdales seem to know they have "the greatest job in the horse industry."

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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