I have seen Clydesdale horses once, pulling the Anheuser-Busch wagon in a parade in St. Louis. Of course, I’ve seen them on TV commercials many times, and many of them produced for the Superbowl are memorable. But I have never been able to get up close to one of these giant horses, or any draft horse, until Sunday at the State Fair Draft Horse barns.
I declare I was absolutely stunned and fascinated by these animals, who were all placidly munching hay or swaying about in their stalls trying to catch the breeze from the fans positioned about to help make them more comfortable in the heat. The Clysdesdales look so pony-like with their long forelock, soft languid eyes, and white blazed muzzle. But they are anything but pony-like in size. According to the Anheuser-Busch website for their farm which raises their famous Clydes, their ideal horse is about 18 hands high (1 hand=4 inches) from hoof to shoulder and weighs between 2000-2300 pounds, with white feathering on all four feet. They use only geldings for their shows and parades.
Some black, some dappled grey, and all magnificent in stature, the Percherons are so big that they can peek over the tops of their stalls to socialize - or challenge- their neighbors. I approached their stalls haltingly, even though they are gentle and patient. They must be of that temperament to perform well in harness and as part of a team. A few came up to the bars and I stroked their soft noses. Horses were being led out of their stalls to the open aisles in the barn, to be tethered to a harness and stand patiently while they were being outfitted. This gave me another perspective on their sheer size, especially the hooves of the Percherons. They look like dinner plates, and are glossy black. I wonder if they are polished with blacking; it didn’t look natural, but all the teams had shiny black hooves, so it must be the standard.
I watched as handlers started the intricate process of braiding their manes and “doing” the tails for the upcoming competition. A young woman is balanced on a stepladder, separating hanks of mane and braiding it while entwining colored ribbons; another groomer inspects the horse’s tail, which has already been curled up into a tight knot, and sometimes embellished with a little fan or bit of color. He snips stray strands of hair with a little pair of scissors. Horse, don’t move! The ribbon colors help “brand” the horse as belonging to a particular owner, as they want their colors to be recognizable – and those colors are carried through in the color of the wagon and the shirts or ties that the drivers wear. In addition, the ensemble includes the elaborate tack that differs somewhat from owner to owner, but all of it is dazzling when it is all assembled on the horses.
Although the unicorn is just one of the horses hitched to the three-horse team for this event, it is unique and fun to watch. The “unicorn” is the horse in front of a pair who pull the wagon. All the pulling is done by the two, and the unicorn is to strut his – or her – stuff and look pretty, and not pull at all. As they circle the oval, you can see the bar that is part of the connecting hitch between the horses, and if it becomes taut, you know that the unicorn is caught pulling some weight. But they were all doing really well, and almost all the time the bar was swinging freely between its chains, evidence that the unicorn was indeed only concerned with drawing the attention and admiration of the crowd.
If you ever have the chance to see these great beasts – draft horses – perform at a parade, or better yet, a show such as this one, do take the time to watch and see if you are not transported, as I was, by your imagination to a world where horses bigger than life pull pretty shiny wagons for the fun of it!