BOONVILLE, Missouri — It’s baby boom season in Boonville, Missouri. As Super Bowl excitement grows across the country, John Soto keeps his cell phone handy, and his shoes near the door. The call can come any time. When it does, the next American icon will be born within minutes.
Soto is the breeding farm supervisor at Warm Springs Ranch, the birthplace of the Budweiser Clydesdales.
“When our alarm goes off, it’s like (we’re) firemen,” he said, recalling the loud beeping that interrupted last year’s Super Bowl showdown. “I was here in about 30 seconds. Half the people didn’t even know where I went; they just saw me running out the door!”
This season, Soto will run toward a laboring mare 32 times. The birthing process itself usually takes no more than 10 to 15 minutes. And within two to three hours, the foal is up walking.
That’s when the real work begins.
Crying in your beer
The Budweiser Clydesdale tradition started as a gift from two sons to their father. On April 7, 1933, August Busch Jr and his brother Adolphus surprised their dad with a six-horse Clydesdale hitch. The gesture was so moving, the entire family was driven to tears. Thus the phrase, “crying in your beer” was born.
“The horses delivered the first post-Prohibition case of Budweiser to the White House, and started a tour around the U.S.,” said Jeff Knapper, general manager of Clydesdale Operations.
Since then, the horses have participated in two presidential inaugurations, marched in 62 Tournament of Roses parades, greeted thousands of fans and appeared on millions of television sets in more than 25 tear-jerking Super Bowl commercials.
Anheuser-Busch now counts 175 Clydesdales in its herd.
The road to Budweiser stardom starts the minute a foal is born. Soto raises the horses at Warm Springs Ranch, a sprawling 300-acre farm in central Missouri. The foals are given names that start with the first letter of their mother’s name: Moose’s momma is Monica; Julio is the son of Joy. They spend their early days nuzzling for milk, galloping through rolling pastures and growing into their lengthy limbs.
“They stay with their mothers until they’re 5 months old, and then we’ll wean them,” Soto said.
January to June is high season. Dozens of Clydesdales are born and can be found roaming in small groups around the property. The ranch opens for seasonal tours through the summer. Visitors can see and interact with the horses, which teaches them to acclimate and trust humans, and sets the stage for what’s to come.
Soto keeps a watchful eye, ensuring his horses receive proper veterinary and hoof care, nursing little ones who need extra help and making sure they are socialized. About 80 horses currently live on the farm, which houses foals, 30 brood mares, fillies and several stallions.
He also helps identify which horses should be recruited for the Budweiser hitch teams. To qualify for one of the traveling crews, each horse is required to have a bay coat, white blaze, a black mane and tail, and the signature white, feathery legs. As adults, they should stand 72 inches at the shoulder and weigh between 1,900 and 2,300 pounds.
Just as important is their nature and personality, Soto said.
“Clydesdales are a very gentle breed. When they’re young, they’re like any other horse — skittish and more like a kid, more rambunctious. As they get older and more mature — the more you handle them, the quieter they become,” he said. But “their personalities won’t change, they’ll carry through.”
Clydesdale ‘prep school’
The foals leave their nest at Warm Springs Ranch when they’re between 5 and 8 months old to enroll in a Budweiser Clydesdale “prep school” two hours away in St. Louis.
At Grant’s Farm, they learn to take baths, get haircuts and stand still to have their manes and tails braided with Budweiser’s signature red and white ribbons. They also participate in meet-and-greets with tour groups, and become familiar with the equipment required to pull the iconic Budweiser wagon.
“We’ll start introducing pieces of harnesses,” said Knapper. “They’ll begin to understand what a back pad is, and having it on. Nothing’s a shock; it’s all a slow process.”
Once they’re 4 years old, the horses travel to Merrimack, New Hampshire, for the final step in the training process: learning how to be part of a hitch team and pull a wagon. Each horse learns the ropes on a small sled, acquiring the skills to go forward, turn left and right and understand cues from their driver. Once they’re confident, the horses will progress to pulling a small wagon, and learn to be hitched with teams of four, six, and eventually eight, horses.
Selecting where a horse is placed in a lineup is a meticulous process. Most of the time, it’s based on size.
“The big boys will be at the back, where they take up the slack that nobody else pulls. They’re your big, strong horses,” Soto said. Next are the body and swing horses, which are smaller. “The leaders will be the first ones the public sees, so they are the high-steppers, flashy horses. They have to have total trust in their driver.”
There are three Budweiser hitch teams, based in Merrimack, St. Louis and Fort Collins, Colorado. They make about 120 appearances around the country each year.
“It’s funny, when you go out to a parade … they’re in the background; they’re nice and relaxed. As soon as the crowd picks up, they really show,” Soto said. “We had one horse in particular, one of the lead horses, who was just the quietest thing. But whenever he knew it was time to go, he was all there — heads up and pulling like a son of a gun!”
Because they’re on the road up to 10 months per year, the Clydesdales travel in comfort. Their entourage includes expert handlers and drivers who carefully transport them in 50-foot tractor trailers. Cameras line the vehicles so they can be monitored at all times while en route to their next locale, and each night includes a stop at a local barn so they can rest and play outside.
“Horses are a lot like athletes,” Knapper said. “Some of these horses will be happy, and out traveling for a long time. Some may go until they’re 10 years old. Our concern is their happiness and their health.”
The Budweiser Clydesdales have appeared in 26 Super Bowl commercials since their debut in 1986.
Smaller Clydesdales, who don’t meet the height requirement for the hitch teams, are often recruited as “hero” horses, who learn the tricks of the trade to make it in Hollywood.
“They’re specially trained for certain aspects, like jumping over fences, stopping on a line, untying themselves,” said Knapper. The “hero” horses go to a trainer in Wyoming, and spend three to six weeks learning moves that, in many cases, will make them famous.
“We kinda joke that we spend a lot of money building fences … and then we send them to train to jump over those fences,” Knapper said.
Soto watches the Super Bowl commercials carefully to see who might pop up on the screen. He relishes reports on how his foals are doing as grownups on the traveling teams.
“When they leave here … we might not see them for a while. It’s like seeing a 3-year-old kid, and then not seeing them until he’s 12,” he said, scratching Riley, a yearling he’s raising at Warm Springs Ranch.
“We hear the drivers call up and say one of our babies went out. If they say ‘Boy, they’re doing great,’ then that’s huge.”
Soto still recognizes the horses’ faces and personalities, years later.
“You always have your favorite mares, your favorite colts. … It’s hard not to get attached to them.”