They’re some of the most iconic horses in the country, each sporting a big white blaze, a deep bay coat, a soft black mane, and long white feathers. The dashing team of eight pulls a towering red beer wagon with a Dalmatian perched next to the driver. They are, of course, the Budweiser Clydesdales.
Each year, three Budweiser hitch teams travel the country making appearances at events ranging from parades to sporting events, and at each performance every horse looks a picture of health. How do these equine celebrities stay in top shape while traveling frequently? TheHorse.com asked Dave Thomas, supervisor of the East Coast hitch based in Merrimack, N.H., when his team made a recent visit to Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky.
Although eight horses pull the Budweiser wagons at performances and appearances, 10 horses make each trip, said Thomas, who’s worked with the Budweiser Clydesdales for 10 years. Thomas said his hitch’s routine is to travel to a new destination each week, and because of this busy schedule the handlers are well-versed in minimizing horses’ travel stress.
Thomas said the main way his team keeps its hitch happy and healthy is by limiting travel to around 500 miles a day and by stopping every two to three hours to check on the horses.
"If it’s going to be a longer haul than that we’ll find an overnight along the way to stop," he said. "We won’t haul more than two days in a row; if it’s longer than a two-day trip then we’ll have a rest day built in."
At rest stops, Thomas and his team check to be sure the horses have eaten their hay and consumed some water. He said it’s a red flag to him if a horse hasn’t done either; that could indicate a horse is starting to colic, which Thomas said is his main health concern for the horses.
Fortunately, he said dealing with a severe colic is rare.
"We’re pretty careful," he said. "That’s one of the main reasons we try not to drive over 500 miles in a day. We don’t (want to) stress them out."
Each hitch has its own veterinarian at its home stables, but if a veterinarian is needed while the team’s on the road, Thomas said it will find and use a local practitioner.
"Here at Keeneland, we’re pretty lucky," he said. "There’s a vet running around all the time."
Once at their destination, the Clydesdales settle in. If there’s no place for the horses to be turned out, Thomas said, handlers take them on walks or have them pull a special sled or the wagon for exercise.
Although they hold celebrity status, the Budweiser Clydesdales are regular horses, and they receive daily care that’s pretty similar to most equines, Thomas said.
He maintains the horses in his hitch on a diet rich in grass hay, preferably timothy.
"We try to keep hay in front of them all the time," he said. He also noted the horses consume a concentrate and fat supplements "to help keep a shiny coat."
Thomas said some of the Clydesdales receive an oral joint supplement, while several of the older horses in the hitch receive injectable joint products. Meanwhile, he said, some horses have received chiropractic care with good results, but none of the horses are currently on a regular chiropractic program.
But, Thomas said, one challenge the Clydesdales face "constantly" is scratches: "That’s probably one of our No. 1 enemies." According to "The Merck Veterinary Manual," "Scratches is a chronic, seborrheic (flaky skin) dermatitis characterized by hypertrophy (enlargement of the skin cells) and exudation (oozing) on the caudal (rear) surface of the pastern and fetlock. It often is associated with poor stable hygiene, but no specific cause is known. Heavy horses are particularly susceptible (potentially because their feathered legs can trap dirt and moisture)."
When it comes to treating scratches, Thomas said, "We’ve basically tried anything and everything that they make, and some products work better than others." The horses’ caretakers frequently remove scratches scabs, and Thomas said they use a custom mixture on the horses’ legs that works to both condition the feathers and control the scratches.
And like most horses, Thomas said, regular farriery care helps keep the Budweiser Clydesdales in top shape.
"The horses are reset every six weeks, no matter where we’re at; our farrier comes and meets us," he explained. "We’re on pavement quite a bit, so all the horses have Drill Tech (a type of traction aid) applied to the bottom of their shoes to help with traction."
Thomas said that one thing he knows now that he wishes he knew when he started working with the Clydesdales is that, "Draft horses are a little bit different than a regular saddle-type horse. You might think that you’d have to feed them quite a bit more, but with a lot of our horses, you really don’t. Same thing if you’re talking about health care … they metabolize things differently. That’s something I didn’t know before I started working with draft horses every day."