Joe Ortega and his "beauty shop" crew have standing daily appointments – shampoos, trims, French braids, the whole works – for some very big show biz clients. How big are they? About seven feet tall and 2,000 pounds – and they're furry. Not the typical beauty salon customer. But when you're a Budweiser Clydesdale, you've always got to look your best.
"They've got to get used to it," says Ortega, supervisor of the Clydesdale training center at the Anheuser-Busch brewery in northeast Colorado.
Six Clydesdale teams travel the country promoting Budweiser and kick off their careers in Fort Collins, Colo. Worth at least $10,000 each, they are sent there when they are three years old from Budweiser's breeding farm in Menifee, Calif. They are introduced to the harness and gradually become comfortable pulling a wagon.
In addition to their wagon lessons, these equines, dubbed "gentle giants," must learn to tolerate the grooming routine of a show horse. Bathing, brushing and braiding a team of eight Budweiser Clydesdales, then hitching them up to their beer wagon, takes five people four hours. It costs $6,000 a day to keep a team of eight spruced up. And you thought your beauty routine was time-consuming.
A Bath a Day
"When we train them here, we have to train them for everything they'll do on the road. And on the road, they get bathed every day because they get sweaty and have to be washed before they can be put up for the evening," says Ortega. "When they first get here, they're not used to that. But once they've been here a few days, they're okay."
Four-year-old Steve, one of eight Clydesdales currently learning the ropes at the training center, seemed relaxed and happy to participate when groomer Dammy Johnson led him from his stall into the grooming area in their plush, oak-lined stables on the brewery grounds. After rinsing his hooves and furry shanks with lukewarm water, she soaped him down with a mixture of Casteel Soap and Hair and Mane Detangler.
"The Casteel soap has cocoa butter in it," Ortega says. "That acts as a conditioner. One thing you have to be careful with is to rinse all the soap out. Otherwise, it has a tendency to irritate their skin."
After finishing the pedicure, Johnson grabbed a step stool so she could hose down Steve's massive back. The one-ton horse stands 18 hands-that's about 6 feet at the shoulder. While she scrubbed Steve's back, Ortega gently washed the giant horse's face. "It's just like washing any other horse – only there's more of it to wash," says Ortega.
Clydesdales Are Huge
All the Clydesdales are huge. To be selected as a Budweiser Clydesdale, a horse must be at least three years old, be gelded, stand about 6-feet at the shoulder, be reddish-brown in color, have white stockings on all four legs, a blaze of white on the face and a black mane and tail. About 25 to 30 foals are born at the company's breeding farms each year, but not all make it onto a beer wagon team.
With his bath complete, Steve is led out of the grooming area and covered with a blanket until he dries. Meanwhile Lloyd – an 11-year-old equine veteran who helps train the younger horses – takes his place. Johnson rubs a currycomb all over Lloyd to remove dirt from his fur. Then Ortega brings over a groomer, a vacuum device that literally sucks out the loosened dirt and shed hair from the horse's body.
When Lloyd is suitably clean, Ortega carries out a red and white ribbon, and some red and white silk roses. He climbs up the step stool and sets to work styling Lloyd's mane: a French braid woven with ribbon and roses.
"I'm not the best French braider," says Ortega, patting a few stray mane hairs into place. "But I get the job done. Some of us are neater at it than others."
Budweiser Clydesdales have been wearing red and white braided manes adorned with flowers since the first hitch appeared shortly after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Legend has it that August A. Busch Jr. wanted to present a hitch of the mighty horses to his father to commemorate the first bottle of post-Prohibition beer brewed in St. Louis. Busch invited his surprised father to step outside to see his new "vehicle," and there was the Clydesdale hitch pulling a red, white and gold beer wagon.