Four giants and their four babies stand at the top of a hill on a golden spring evening and peer into the valley. A utility vehicle putters through the pasture at the foot of the hill, stops, and two visitors get out. The giants watch the men from afar, gently shaking their black manes and twitching their bobbed tails. Soon -- when they decide the men are no threat -- they saunter down the slope, keeping their bodies between their foals and the visitors. One man stands in greeting, the other crouches with a camera as the horses draw near. Before long, the men are encircled by muscular bay bodies.
Six feet tall at the shoulder and weighing 2,000 pounds, the four broodmares tower over the men. Their hooves are as big as dinner plates, their heads are huge. Despite their size, the mares don't intimidate. Instead, they exude an aura of curiosity. When the giants put their white noses down and sniff the men, it's as if to say, "Nice to meet you."
Almost by magic, a preternatural quiet settles over the scene as the two species gaze at each other. The standing man, who knows these horses well, whispers in wonder, "It's surreal, isn't it?"
Welcome to Clydesdale heaven, also known as Warm Springs Ranch, in Boonville, Missouri. The standing man is Mark Boese, herd manager for Anheuser-Busch's famous Budweiser Clydesdales. Through more than 20 years of working with the breed, he has embraced the feeling that these majestic horses are special.
"We call them gentle giants," he says. "You can walk into a field with a Clydesdale and -- unlike most horses -- they don't run away; they come to you." In fact, they seem to welcome you.
THE CELEBRITY LIFE
A believer in reincarnation might be forgiven for wanting to live his next life as a Budweiser Clydesdale. Their celebrity entitles them to royal treatment. Everywhere they go, people gather and crowds cheer.
At Warm Springs Ranch, they have the run of 300 acres of lush pastureland. The 50 to 60 pounds of timothy hay they eat each day -- whether in the ranch barns or when they travel for business -- is imported from a single select farm in Eden, Idaho. The 8 pounds of daily ration they consume contains the highest-quality oats. Their pristine stalls are bedded in shaved wood. The aisles between the stalls are swept then vacuumed. A farrier comes every six weeks to pamper their feet. A veterinarian is on call 24/7 should they feel ill.
When they prance in parades pulling the Budweiser beer wagon, the Clydesdales wear leather and polished brass harnesses custom-made by an Ohio family and costing $12,000 each. The teams travel in a caravan of three red and silver semitrailers emblazoned with their breed name and the beer brand. Air-cushioned suspension and special flooring in the trailers ease the rigors of traveling, and they stop every two hours so the horses can take breaks. If an overnight stay is necessary, one of the trailers carries custom stalls for the horses' sleeping comfort.
Warm Springs Ranch is the primary breeding and training facility for the Budweiser Clydesdales. When a mare is ready to mate, she is washed and led into a large breeding room. An eager stud is showered in a room down the hall. The breeding room itself is tall and airy with cushiony rubber floor mats. When it is not in use as a honeymoon suite, the space is a visitors' reception hall, complete with a bar ... Budweiser on tap.
WORK FOR THEIR LIVING
Clydesdales have to earn their unique Budweiser celebrity. To be a part of the hitch, a bay-colored gelding Clydesdale must be at least 4 years of age, stand 18 hands (72 inches) at the shoulder and weigh between 1,800 and 2,300 pounds. He must have a black mane and tail, a white blaze on his forehead and four white stockings with feathery hair that gets groomed daily. He must have an even temperament and be a team player.
Boese says future team members begin training at birth. "Handling, touching, being around people" is part of the regime. Major training starts in earnest at 3 years old. Horses get pulling practice every day, two hours a day for at least a year. Trainers keep meticulous charts to be sure each gelding learns to pull in all positions of the eight-horse team.
Once a Clydesdale graduates, he is assigned to a hitch based either in Colorado, Missouri or New Hampshire. Three strategic locales help the teams span the country to annually appear at 120 to 150 events -- parades, sporting events and beer wholesalers' promotional campaigns.
While their boys are on the road, female Clydesdales continue to earn their keep at Warm Springs Ranch. Pregnancy lasts almost a year (about 340 days) before giving birth to a 140-pound, 3-foot-tall foal. Mares nurse for another six months.
Broodmares also serve as ambassadors for the ranch, where they greet thousands of tourists each year. Kids and adults "ooh" and "aah" at foals while mamas patiently watch. They pose for countless photos, and excited voices echo in their stalls.
During days off from celebrity chores, broodmares take their youngsters to pastures on rolling hills where they graze in peace. Once in a great while, they saunter down hills in a golden evening light to inspire wonder in men in utility vehicles.
> The Budweiser Clydesdale tradition started in the 1930s as a celebration of the end of Prohibition. Warm Springs Ranch was created as the breeding center in 2008. Training operations moved there in 2019.
> The Clydesdale breed originated in Scotland. Only the Percheron and Shire breeds are larger, both at 18 hands but weighing about 2,600 pounds.
> A yearly crop of foals at Warm Springs Ranch is about 20. The total Clydesdale population there is 70 to 80. About 200 Budweiser Clydesdales are spread among four facilities: two in Missouri, one in New Hampshire, one in Colorado.
> Clydesdales retire to prestigious homes such as Anheuser-Busch's Grant's Farm, in St. Louis, or other display stables.
> Members of the breed can live to 20 years old and beyond.
> Warm Springs Ranch hosts tours six days a week from March to November. Thousands show up every year. A Holiday Lights event in the winter brings even more.
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