Meet NH's gentle giants: Budweiser Clydesdales

The Granite State is home to a number of things that could be called "icons." The Budweiser Clydesdales are about as iconic as they come.



Photo by Susan Laughlin

While the New England Patriots were battling the New York Giants last February for the NFL championship, one New Hampshire resident was also experiencing Super Bowl glory.

"This is Diamond," says Barb Jesse as she introduced the 10-year-old who is on the elite team of world-famous Budweiser Clydesdales stabled on the property of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery in Merrimack. "He was in our Super Bowl commercial this year."

Diamond is no stranger to the limelight. Although Anheuser-Busch owns one of the largest and finest Clydesdale herds in the world, consisting of 250 males, mares and foals, there are only three traveling hitches of 24 horses each. Only the finest make the cut to perform at more than 100 promotional events all over the continent each year and star in those iconic ads.

One of the three teams, the East Coast division, calls Merrimack home. The team is out on the road for 10 of the 12 months and the eight positions on the hitch, plus two alternates, are rotated among the two dozen horses stabled here, so there are always about 14 horses on the grounds. People may visit them year-round on complimentary tours of the Clydesdale Hamlet.

"You hear the term 'Gentle Giants' and it's so true about them. They come from all over the world to see these horses," says Jesse, who has been one of the brewery's Clydesdale handlers for 14 years and says there were more than 50,000 visitors last year. "This is a little jewel, but people right around this area tend to forget about it."

The magnificent, powerful, graceful and highstepping Clydesdales have served as a symbol of Budweiser's heritage since Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and they are one of advertising's most enduring mascots. It all started when the ban on drinking ended and August Busch Jr. presented the first hitch to his father, August Sr., in celebration. The elder Busch was tricked into thinking that his gift was a new car, but instead discovered the now famous red, white and gold beer wagon being pulled by the Clydesdales standing in front of the original brewery in St. Louis.

Gussie Busch was a master showman and an adroit salesman who recognized the marketing potential of a horse-drawn beer wagon. The family sent the team and wagon by rail to New York City, and then it traveled to Washington, D.C., to deliver the first cases of legal Budweiser to President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House.

"The same red barrel wagon that was used to deliver that first case of non-prohibition beer to President Roosevelt is right here in our wagon room. These wagons are heavy and authentic, and they were all made by Studebaker around 1900," Jesse explains.

The Clydesdales, who were bred by the River Clyde in Scotland and used as war horses through World War I, were imported to North America in the late 19th century. Prized for their strength, endurance and even temperament, they can pull twice their weight.

"Each horse's physical ability and size determines his position on the hitch. Our wheelhorses weigh 2,200 pounds because they have to be strong enough to get the wagon moving and then help slow or stop it. The body and swing horses weigh 2,000 pounds each and have to be agile to swing the wagon, and the two lead horses are the fastest and weigh 1,800 to 1,900 pounds," Jesse explains.

Each horse has a brass-and-leather harness, collar and bridle that are handcrafted to fit him and weigh about 30 pounds. The team and wagon total 12 tons and part of that impost is always a Dalmatian who rides next the drivers.

Bud and Brewer are the Merrimack Dalmations and while Brewer travels with the hitch, Bud is always home to greet visitors with his tail wagging.

The horses have individual personalities, although they all seem to enjoy the public attention they receive - especially on Camera Day, the first Saturday of every month from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., when they interact closely with visitors.

Otherwise mornings are the ideal time for touring, says Jesse.

"Come before noon or you won't see too much. We bring the horses in from the paddock early and people might see them being bathed, clipped or groomed. Sometimes they'll see them hitched and driving in the arena and there might be others outside to see. Every day is different," Jesse says.

While almost every horse on the three teams was bred on the brewery's farm in Missouri, Jack was imported from Scotland and sent here at age 4. Now 9 years old, the 2,200-pound wheelhorse has a sweet disposition and a growing fan club.

"Everyone loves Jack," says Jesse as she rubbed his nose and scratched his ears. "Visitors always tell us that if Jack would fit into their cars, they'd take him home in a heartbeat."

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