Sunday, May 15, 2016

Gentle Giants in the Countryside

World-Renowned Budweiser Clydesdales
Internet - public domain photo
Gentle Giants in the Countryside
travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

           On the large stone wall next to the wrought-iron entry gate, the understated sign read: WARM SPRINGS RANCH. In smaller letters below: HOME OF THE WORLD-RENOWNED BUDWEISER CLYDESDALES. The motorized gate opened, and I drove the car forward where a guide greeted us and gave instructions on how to proceed. A translucent sky in the cool spring morning had slowly turned bright blue during our drive through the Missouri countryside to reveal the budding trees and green valleys. My wife, Gretta, and I had arrived at the ranch near Boonville for a tour of the Clydesdale breeding operation, and were fortunate to have tickets which sell out months in advance.
Warm Springs Ranch near Boonville, Missouri
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          The 300-acre ranch was directly before us, nestled in the hills adjacent to the Missouri River. It was a horse farm with massive barns, white fences, green fields, and giant horses grazing the hillsides. As we drove towards the parking lot, Gretta exclaimed, “Look!” She pointed to a foal with wobbly legs in one of the pens. It looked like a baby camel and made jerky movements while it followed the mother horse.
          “That horse doesn’t look very old.” I said. In fact, we later learned the foal was born just five days earlier.
Five-day-old Clydesdale Foal with Mother
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          We entered the large red barn and walked to the breeding room where we were told the tour would start. There were no mood lights or padded walls . . . no soft music. The horses must already have an idea about what to do when they are brought together.
          At the beginning of the tour we viewed a short video which had clips of the baby Clydesdales in the Super Bowl commercials. When it ended, our guide stood by the massive beer wagon and shared many stories and facts about the horses and the ranch.
          Warm Springs Ranch is the only location where the Budweiser Clydesdales are bred. The ranch contracts with various breeders to bring in stallions that have the desired breeding qualities. The breeders select horses with these specific traits:
·        White noses
·        White lower legs
·        Black mane and tails
·        Eighteen hands in height at the shoulder (approximately six feet)
·        Overall chestnut-bay color
          The male foals which grow to meet these requirements are neutered to become geldings and trained to become parade horses.
          There was a collective gasp from the women in the tour group when the guide told us the gestation period for Clydesdales was eleven months. We learned that when one of the mares is ready to deliver, the ranch manager receives an electronic notice from a sensor. Whether it is night or day, he is there to assist the deliveries.
          When did these gentle giants become the icon for Budweiser? The beer-wagon and horses idea was implemented by the Busch family to celebrate the repeal of prohibition. They wanted to tell the country they were ready to deliver a product that would quench the public’s thirst. Strategic deliveries were made in 1933 by the drivers and the teams of horses to famous personalities such as Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House and to the former governor of New York, Al Smith. With photos appearing in all of the major newspapers, the Budweiser brand became associated with the Clydesdales.
          Today there are Clydesdale ranches in the Midwest, and on the East and West Coasts to serve as headquarters for multiple teams of the famous horses. From these locations, the crews and horses have a busy schedule to attend over 300 events and parades during the year. They tour the highways to their destinations in style and comfort in large red eighteen-wheel trucks with sparkling stalls in the air-conditioned trailers.
          Everybody loves a parade, and the Budweiser beer wagon and the Clydesdales have become a part of Americana. Good times, happy times, the best of the best — the Clydesdales reflect a feeling of pride and strength. In a process that takes six hours, the horses are groomed and harnessed in leather and brass, then finally hitched to the wagon to become the stars of the show. For early morning parades, the handlers are required to begin the preparation in the middle of the night.
          Each horse weighs over one ton, with the entire team weighing over 16,000 pounds. They pull the symbolic beer wagon which weighs only 8,000 pounds, thus the exertion for any one horse is minimal. The largest horses are hitched closest to the wagon since their massive strength is what gets the wagon rolling. The lead horses are selected for their agility and responsiveness to the commands from the driver.
          An important part of the beer wagon is the driver holding the reins. Good upper-body strength is required to hold the leather straps and guide the eight horses. The tension on the reins can exceed 75 pounds, thus two drivers are required to take turns during the parades which can be as long as ten miles and last several hours. The drivers have a single Dalmatian as their companion. The large, spotted dog is now a symbolic image of its original function, which was to guard the wagon from thieves during beer deliveries.

Drivers and Dalmation
Internet - public domain photo
          Our tour guide passed around one of the horseshoes for the giant hooves. It weighed five pounds and was twenty inches in length around the curve from end to end. The parade horses require re-shoeing every four to six months. The guide pointed out an interesting detail on the cast horseshoe — a small clip angle that points upward on the front of the shoe. This angle transfers some of the pressure from the shoe to the front of the hoof, thus reducing the stress on the nails at the underside of the hoof. We were told if the angle didn’t exist, the horses would require three times as many re-shoes.
          Although our tour group was eager to see the baby horses, we first met Duke, a retired parade horse. All of the horses we saw impressed us with their calm manner, and we were told that it was okay to use the flash on our cameras. The relaxed character trait of the breed allows them to endure all types of stressful situations that occur when performing before large crowds where unexpected noises and lights are encountered.  
Tour Guide with Duke, a Retired Parade Horse
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          The body temperature of a Clydesdale is 101 degrees. When it was our turn to greet Duke and pet his nose and neck, we quickly noticed the warm sensation when our fingertips were close to the horse’s hair. Duke never tired from the attention he received. He was always ready for more people to come up and marvel at the majesty of his presence.
          Near the end of the tour, we visited the stalls where two sets of mares and foals were resting. The foals, which spent most of their time lying on the hay, were about one-and-a-half months old. The moms were always available when the young horses became hungry, which was quite often. The Clydesdales reveled at the attention and nuzzled the cameras and cellphones with their curiosity. 
Foal with Mother
photo by Gregory E. Larson
         After the tour and the free beer, we wandered out to the parking lot and noticed a small group of people standing by the exercise pens where we’d seen the baby Clydesdale. The mom and baby were resting, so we walked over to a pen where one of the parade horses, covered with a blanket, stood looking at us. His look seemed to say, “Come on over and visit with old Bud.” He was proud to get the attention of the small group. 
"Come on over and visit with old Bud."
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          All of a sudden, people noticed that the baby Clydesdale was up and running with its mom, which immediately caused our group to hurry over to the their pen. Old Bud wasn’t too happy that his brief popularity was gone. He let out a big N-a-a-a-y, as if to say “Why is everybody leaving me? What’s that little horse got that I don’t have?”
Five-day-old Clydesdale
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          The five-day-old was the star, and it came right up to the fence with its mom nearby. We were glad we’d come to see what it was like to live a horse’s life at Warm Springs Ranch. Undeniably, we all want to be loved, and the horses were no exception.