After a lifetime of seeing them on television, excited fans of all generations were thrilled with the arrival of the world-renowned Budweiser Clydesdales at the 49th U.P. Championship Rodeo in Iron River this past July. The excitement over a visit from this iconic and legendary team of horses is not unique to the U.P. “There’s a lot of history and tradition that travels with the horses, and they are beloved throughout not only the United States but the world,” according to Chief Handler Rudy Helmuth. “They just seem to bring goodwill wherever they go.” And they go everywhere, receiving thousands of appearance requests every year from all over the world. Although the St. Louis-based team is on the road 300 days annually, they appear at only 100 coveted events. Landing the Clydesdales is no small feat for anyone.
Local Anheuser-Busch wholesalers comprise the bulk of requests. Credit for the Clydesdales appearing in Iron River goes chiefly to Kingsfordbased Four Seasons Beer Distributing, who footed approximately $20,000 in appearance fees. But it takes more than money to host such visiting celebrity horses. According to Rodeo board member Julie
Becker, “We started working on this last November. It’s been a lot of work, but it has been worth it to get
the royalty of the horse world here.”
A visit from the Budweiser Clydesdales requires a great deal of highly-detailed logistical effort, too. Stables, food delivery, security and hotel accommodations for the handlers all require impeccable attention. According to Chief
Handler Helmuth, “Each 2,000-pound horse consumes about 15-20 pounds of grain and 40 pounds of hay per day. And on a hot day, each horse will drink about 40 gallons of water.” For the Iron River visit, 10 pallets of special feed were shipped a few days before their arrival.
No chances can be taken with animals and equipment in whom so much is invested. The individual horses chosen to be a member of this elite team travel in appropriate comfort and style. The horses, handlers, equipment, famous red, white and gold beer wagon, as well as “Clyde the Dalmatian,” a dog, criss-cross the world in three air-conditioned 50-foot tractor-trailers. Cameras are connected to monitors in the cabs, enabling the drivers to keep ever-watchful eyes on their precious cargo. Air-cushioned suspension and thick rubber flooring add to the comfort of the trailers. And, the teams never travel more than eight hours per day, stopping at night at farms and stables so the Clydesdales can rest after a day of rigorous travel.
Clydesdale horses were first introduced to the U.S. in the mid-1800s when Canadians of Scottish descent brought them across the border to be used as draft horses. Today, the Clydesdale is used primarily for breeding and show. The Budweiser Clydesdales are carefully selected from a 300-plus-acre breeding farm located near Boonville, Mo. To qualify to be a member of one of the three Budweiser traveling hitch teams, a Clydesdale must meet certain requirements: Each horse must be a gelding of at least four years of age; it must stand 72 inches high at the shoulder when fully mature and should weigh between 1,800 and 2,300 pounds; the horse must also have a bay coat, four white legs, a white blaze and a black mane and tail.
The handlers chosen to drive the team and wagon must themselves undergo a lengthy qualifying and training process before assuming the prestigious role of ‘Budweiser Clydesdale Hitch Driver.’ Helmuth came on board with some previous hands-on training. “I grew up with draft horses on a farm in Iowa where we used the horses for farming. That set me up for the job that I have now. It’s been an incredible job not only because of what I get to
do, but because of the people I meet.”
When asked how they are received as they travel the highways of America, Helmuth replies, “There is always a lot of excitement. Even when just stopping for fuel, we open the doors so that people can see the famous Budweiser Clydesdales.”
Yes, American royalty, indeed.