Horses, horses: big horses

John Oncken

I’ve always thought that horses were smart and understood more of what humans say than science gives them credit for.  From the team of Sandy and Rex, our farm horses I drove as a youth, to Princess, a quarter horse my daughters showed in many competitions during their high school days, to those few of the 625 Clydesdales I met during my rather brief visit to the World Clydesdale Show in Madison last weekend, all showed how smart horses really are.

Sandy and Rex were just farm horses who did what they were supposed to do — pull cultivators, drags, hay wagons, stone boats and whatever.  They always did things at the correct speed and in the right way with little prompting from the reins I held.  And while in their barn stalls they gave me room to put their collar and harness on and take it off. 

Brian Beardsley, Poynette and his niece Brooke Meinholz, celebrate his championship in the Pleasure Team Class.

Princess, our quarter horse who I purchased through a newspaper ad, patiently endured both my daughters riding lessons and a multitude of horse shows and seemed to enjoy the activities and the show ring even on the hottest of summer days. 

I remember how she would not enter the show ring at our first show (in Cottage Grove). No amount of cojolling or pleading would get her to move. An onlooker offered her advice: “That’s just Princess, I’ve seen her before, just tell her to get going and give her a gentle whack on the butt and she’ll understand and move.”  

We did as directed and Princess went into the ring and to our surprise carried my daughter Lynne to the Youth Horsemanship Championship in her first show and over the next three years they never placed lower than fifth in any show. I guess that Princess realized we were serious and never again hesitated.

World Clydesdale Show

There were 625 Clydesdales at the Alliant Energy Center for their World Show. They came from Canada and many states including California, Arizona, Utah, Texas, Virginia, Florida and states in between — including 25 from Wisconsin —  to compete in over 100 classes ranging from halter to single horse carts to three, four and eight horse hitches. And, for the first show ever dressage, jumping and barrel racing were offered with more than the expected number of entries received.

Three Clydesdales at the Airgood pasture in Marshall.

From Scotland

The Clydesdale is a breed of draft horse named for and derived from the farm horses of Clydesdale, a county in Scotland. The breed was originally used for agriculture and haulage, and is still used for draught purposes today.  In the 1920s and 1930s, it was a compact horse smaller than the Shire, Percheron, and Belgian. Beginning in the 1940s, breeding animals were selected to produce taller horses that looked more impressive in parades and shows. Today, the Clydesdale stands 16 to 18 hands (64 to 72 inches) high and weighs 1,800 to 2,000 pounds.

Most people are familiar with Clydesdales from seeing the Budweiser 8-horse Clydesdale teams popular through TV beer commercials featuring the horses. Today, the traveling hitches are on the road at least 10 months every year, based out of St. Louis, Missouri, Merrimack, New Hampshire and Fort Collins, Colorado. One of the three Budweiser Clydesdale teams was in Madison for the World Clydesdale show. 

The breeds registration and records office, the Clydesdale Breeders of the U.S.A. is located at Pecatonica, Illinois where Kathy Behn serves as Executive Director.  In her introduction to the show,  Behn writes in the catalog: “Although the Clydesdale numbers in the world are less than other breeds, we are working diligently to expand.”

She also paid tribute to Victoria McCullough of Wellington, Florida and her Maryland-based Chesapeake Petroleum Co. for being a major financial contributor and sponsor of the World Clydesdale Show.  

How do you mount such a tall horse? My dad helps, this rider says.

Not the same

As I walked through the New Holland Pavilions and Coliseum looking at horses and commercial displays I couldn’t help comparing this event and Dairy Expo. The major difference between the two is that most of the dairy exhibitors are part of full-time operating, family owned, dairy farms while the horse exhibitors own and operate other types of business that supports their horse interests.

In fact, a couple of horse exhibitors said there was probably not anyone showing horses that did not have an outside supporting business.

And, that’s OK — there are many dairy exhibitors who work on non-farm jobs but own one or several animals housed at different locations and some non ag businesses (including well-known Arethusa Dairy in Connecticut, a shoe company) that are very successful in the show ring.   

And, cattle shows are slow and easy while the hitch classes at a horse show are like a runaway train.

Burgers and horses

I stopped at a display in the middle of the Pavilion 2 that I thought was a food stand. it was a red barn-like building with the name “Burger Barn.”

That’s just our display,” a voice behind me said. “We’re here with 17 horses in two semis,” he continued. It turned out to be Jason Hill owner of Kingpin Farms and the Burger Barn restaurant at Six Nations of the Grand River, Ontario. There are many dairy cattle at World Dairy Expo that travel to Madison in semis and trailers bit I’d guess none with as full load as a load of Clydesdales would be.   

Cornstarch helps dry the long hair on the legs and makes it whiter in color after the horse is washed.

Talking and learning

Ken Airgood, Marshall (only a half dozen miles from where I live) is a member of the board of directors of Clydesdale Breeders of the USA, so I visited with him to learn more about the Clydesdale world. 

“I was fascinated by the breed even as a kid,” he began, “but didn’t get my first horse — that I bought at a sale at Lone Rock — until age 33.  My wife, Sonja and I helped out at local horse shows including the Dane county and other local fairs before we began competing in  shows. ‘We entered several classes last week including a mare cart class.” 

“We usually show at several county fairs with good horse shows including Dane, Jefferson, Walworth, Monroe and sometimes Boone county, Illinois.  

Some questions

-- How are horse classes judged? Mostly on the appearance and presence of the horse. Is it enjoying itself? Breed character. The driver’s skill  in harnessing, and driving. 

-- Can these big horses be hauled in a regular trailer or semi?  No, I use an 8-foot trailer (a foot taller than normal) and the semis are taller.

-- Are there money premiums paid to class winners? “Yes, and the amount depends on donors. This year Victoria McCullough is offering $5,000 to the winners of the registered Mare and Stallion classes. She is trying to encourage genetic improvement in the breed. 

Ken Airgood displays a Clydesdale shoe and a common regular shoe.

Now a farrier

Airgood is by training a mechanical engineer who formerly worked for a well known pump company who has been a fulltime farrier (horseshoer) for the past 13 years. “I work within  a radius of about 40 miles,” he says.  

Are big Clydesdale horses pets? Maybe not but they fill many pet requirements: lovable, good conversationalist in that they never talk back, make one happy, do what you ask and like to be petted. 

The World Clydesdale Show was held in Madison in 2007, 2011 and this year, maybe they will return again in three to four years. These big, smart animals seem almost like pets, I can see why people raise them. Seeing them up close is an experience not easy to forget. Try it. 
John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.