Since they made their first appearance April 7, 1933, to celebrate the repeal of Prohibition as a gift from August A. Busch Jr. and Adolphus Busch to their father, the Budweiser Clydesdales are perhaps one of the most easily recognizable icons known worldwide.
Thousands of attendees to the Missouri State Fair have marveled in their presence as they have made their way through the grounds in daily parades or in their home away from home behind the Mathewson Exhibition Center.
While many may know the basics of what it takes to be a Clydesdale, it takes a behind the scenes team to bring the Clydesdales to an appearance.
Three teams travel around the United States and the 10 horses appearing at the State Fair are based out of Grant’s Farm in St. Louis. The other teams are based in Merrimack, New Hampshire, and Ft. Collins, Colorado.
Each team travels with three semi tractor-trailers containing the Clydesdales and their Dalmation mascot, Bud, as well as the Budweiser red beer wagon and the harnesses and equipment needed for their stay.
One trailer carries six horses, one carries four horses and the portable stall displays. The third carries the wagon and harnesses.
“Typically we move to a new location each week, Mondays being our travel days,” Rudy Helmuth, hitch driver for the team explained. “It takes about two hours to set up our portable stall display and get all the horses settled in.”
Helmuth, who has been with the team for seven years, said all members who travel with the Clydesdales share all the same duties and help each other with the workload.
“We wear a lot of hats so the job never gets boring,” he added.
Typically it takes five hours to prepare the horses for a performance or show day. Members arrive in the early morning, feeding the Clydesdales their diet of grain and hay before taking them for a walk. While the horses are exercising team members clean stalls so the Clydesdales have fresh bedding following their grooming.
“The horses get a full-body bath once a week and their feathers, the long hair on their feet, get washed every day before a show to enhance the glistening whiteness,” Helmuth said. “We curry and vacuum their bodies, comb their mane and tail.
“We braid their manes and tails at the stables we’re stabled at,” he continued. “If the show is off-site from our stables then we will load them in the trailer and haul them to the show area.”
It takes another hour to harness and then hitch the Clydesdales to the wagon.
The harnesses themselves are a work of art. Each one is custom-fitted and weighs approximately 150 pounds. The harnesses are made of leather and solid brass. The brass on each harness is polished before each show. According to Helmig, the harnesses for a full eight-horse set-up cost roughly $100,000.
Of course, not all Clydesdales can become a Budweiser Clydesdale. The breeding facility for the Budweiser Clydesdales is Warm Springs Ranch in Boonville. There the horses are raised and are given their names.
Horses chosen for a Budweiser Clydesdale hitch must be at least 3 years old, stand approximately 18 hands — or six feet — at the shoulder, and weigh an average of 2,000 pounds.
They must be bay in color, have four white legs, and a blaze of white on the face with a black mane and tail. According to a press release, “a gentle temperament is very important as hitch horses meet millions of people each year.”
The horses can consume as much as 20 to 25 quarts of feed, 40 to 50 pounds of hay and 30 gallons of water daily.
The Dalmations that travel with the teams are also specifically bred.
“The Dalmations joined the team in the 1950s as a mascot,” Helmig commented. “Originally the Dalmations were guard dogs that would sit on the wagon and guard the horses and wagon as the driver got off to unload the cargo so to continue the tradition we still carry that on today.
“We have specific breeders we source the Dalmatians from as they have to be very calm natured,” Helmig continued. “Occasionally handlers can get them after the Dalmations retire and give them a forever home.”
For the six to seven handlers who are part of each team, the hours and days away from home are long, but the rewards of being part of a legendary team more than makes up for their workload.
“Each week going to a new city, meeting thousands of new people and new experiences and yet each time someone walks up next to one and their eyes light up from their amazement of their size and majesty, it reignites the love I have for this job and how lucky I am to be able to bring these American icons into local towns to share them with people who haven’t seen them in real life, maybe just on TV commercials and calendars brings me the most joy and satisfaction,” Helmig said.
The Clydesdales will be on parade at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. At 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday they will open the Draft Horse Show in the Mathewson Exhibition Center and will be on parade following the opening of the show. Their final appearance will be at 2 p.m. Sunday with a parade on closing day.