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Gentle Giants: Our Local Clydesdale Connection

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What has feet the size of dinner plates and loves to nuzzle your neck? The Clydesdale draft horse, once the lifeblood of many Midwestern farms. Meet a family of Clydesdale breeders who have carefully tracked this lovable horse.

GlenCoe Sweet Mariah mugs for the photographer. (Rebecca O'Malley photo)

Often as not, it’s late on a cold winter night, snow flying, when a foal is born on the Behn farm. As many as four generations of Behns gather in the foaling barn, cell phones and cameras in hand, a stack of clean, dry towels at the ready. The mare’s 11-month, 10-day pregnancy is drawing to a close, and the family is eager to welcome another leggy, 150-pound baby to the world.

“We have a video camera in the barn, so we keep an eye on the mare from inside the house,” explains Logan Behn, 21, a third-generation Clydesdale breeder. “When her water breaks, we go to the barn and watch over her during contractions. If she needs help, we help. Mostly we’re there so we can dry off the foal with towels and touch it right away and stay in very close contact. This imprinting is important to our relationship with the foal. The mare doesn’t mind. She knows us.”

“It’s a way of life for us,” explains Cathy Behn, Logan’s mom. “My mom [Betty Groves] is in her 80s and lives in Winnebago [Ill.] now, but she still insists on being called when a mare is about to foal, even if it’s 1 a.m.”

About seven years ago, Andy Behn purchased the family farm from grandma Betty Groves. At that time, he and brothers Ryan and Logan, along with parents John and Cathy, formed a partnership and purchased the GlenCoe Clydesdale herd. Andy and his new wife, Ali Behn, live in the family home on Kelley Road. Ryan and wife Megan live in Byron, Ill., with sons Carsen and Case, and are also actively involved in the Clydesdale operation.

John Behn and his three sons all work jobs outside the farm, even as they stay active in the breeding and promotion of Clydesdales. Cathy maintains the national office of the Clydesdale Breeders of the U.S.A., located in a small house on the 15-acre farm, a position she took over when her mom retired six years ago.

They Came with the Farm

It was Cathy’s parents – Betty Groves and her late husband, Jim – who took up Clydesdale breeding 55 years ago, when they purchased the Kelley Road farm they’d been renting from Floyd Conger.

“It was a regular farm with milk cows and pigs,” Cathy explains. “But Mr. Conger also had these magnificent Clydesdales that he liked to drive, and he had no one in the family to carry on with them. So he sold the farm to my folks, horses and all. He and my folks became great friends, and he taught them about the breed.”

Cathy points to a photo of her parents and Conger proudly standing with “the Clydes” at a show. “Hitching competitions were Mr. Conger’s pride and joy,” she says. “When Mom and Dad took over, they did more with raising foals, but they hitched, too, and inspired our boys to love Clydesdales.”

The Groves registered the prefix “GlenCoe” for their Clydesdales, not only because they’d visited a quaint Scottish town by that name, but also because it paid homage to Floyd Conger and Glen Thurston, who sold them their first herd sire.

Over time, Jim and Betty befriended other Clydesdale owners around the nation, through competitions, breeding sales and affiliation with the influential Draft Horse Journal. In 1976, Betty applied for a paid staff position with the Clydesdale Breeders of the U.S.A., an organization that dates back to 1879. She was hired to be both record keeper and cheerleader for the Clydesdale breed, and the Kelley Road farm has been its national headquarters ever since. When Betty started, there were 89 active members; by the time she retired, in 2005, there were 900.

“The filing cabinet Mom inherited from the previous secretary grew to one room, then two, then to a small house on our farm that was converted into the association office,” Cathy says.

Beyond Budweiser

Today, that office is bustling. Piles of registration paperwork cover two large desks and boxes of T-shirts and other merchandise for the Clydesdale Store are piled high, in preparation for the World Clydesdale Show in Madison, Wis., Oct. 20-23, an event that happens every four years.

“It’s like the Olympics for Clydesdales,” explains Cathy, who had worked by her mother’s side since girlhood, computerizing the records for every Clydesdale in the nation, before assuming her mom’s job in 2005. She registers every new birth, sale and transfer in the country.

“This is where all of the paperwork is done, events are booked and communications are maintained with members around the country,” says Cathy, motioning around her. The whinny of mares carries on the wind, through an open window into her office; Cathy stops to listen, and smiles. Farm dogs and cats cavort on the grass. “In this office, we get daily phone calls and emails from people from all over the world, eager to get tickets to the show and experience the Clydes for themselves. The affection is great for this breed, even among people who don’t own them and never will own them.”

The Behn breeding operation, GlenCoe Clydesdales, is separate from the national breeder association, but similar in mission. “We don’t do this for the money,” says Cathy. “This is a labor of love that gets into your blood. Our goal is to share the breed with people, to promote awareness. Breeding helps pay for upkeep, allows us to buy shoes and harnesses for the horses, feed them oats twice a day, buy their mineral supplements and keep them in good health.”

The Groves/Behns have sold Clydesdales around the world, most recently to a buyer in China.

“Mom’s an icon among the Clydesdale people,” Cathy says. “The publisher of the Draft Horse Journal referred to her as ‘Secretary and Mother Hen of the Whole Clydesdale Clan in America.’ She’s still in touch with Clydesdale people, but these days she spends a lot of time doing something else she loves – helping to care for quadruplet grandchildren.”

On the occasion of Betty Groves’ retirement in 2005, James Poole, general manager of Budweiser’s Clydesdale Operations in St. Louis, said of Betty: “Whenever anyone in North America hears the word ‘Clydesdales,’ they immediately associate it with either Budweiser or Betty Groves.”

Over the decades, the Groves/Behns have done business with Budweiser, breeding GlenCoe mares with Budweiser stallions.

“No one’s done more to promote the awareness of Clydesdales than Budweiser,” says Logan. “Budweiser has been very good for the breed. Still, it’s important to remember that Clydesdales originated in Scotland, long before Budweiser beer came along.”

Company lore holds that Anheuser-Busch brewery owners celebrated the repeal of Prohibition in 1932 by delivering Budweiser beer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a six-horse Clydesdale team. Today the beer company owns many Clydesdales promoted through its famous eight-horse hitches and also has a state-of-the-art breeding farm in Boonville, Mo.

Beyond Budweiser, draft horses have powered much of the progress of the Western world. Clydesdales from Scotland, Percherons from France, Shires from England and Belgians from Belgium have plowed fields, dragged timber, hauled goods and otherwise been an essential partner in the building of America.

Why They’re Special

To breeders like the Behns, all non-draft horses are simply “light horses.” Ask them to delineate distinctions among “heavy horses,” however, and they’ll tick off a list of subtleties faster than you can say “Mr. Ed.”

“The Clydes and Shires are distinguished by their ‘feather,’ the long hair around their ankles,” explains Cathy. “The Percherons, which are black or dappled black, don’t have the extensive feather, and neither do Belgians – but Shires do. Not having feather can be an advantage when a horse is doing heavy field work, which is why the Amish, to this day, prefer Belgians on their farms.”

The feather certainly is an attractive feature, however, when a Clydesdale crisply lifts its dinner-plate sized hooves so high that light reflects off its shoes. Like human hair, horse feathers need special care.

“Here at the farm we keep a mineral oil on the feather to keep it soft and conditioned,” Cathy explains. “We wash the feather before a show, and coat it with fine sawdust. That keeps dirt from getting in, and we brush the sawdust out right before the horses perform.”

But it’s not just the Clydesdales’ sturdy good looks that matter to Cathy. “Each horse has a distinct personality, but the breed, overall, is very smart, affectionate and eager-to-please,” she says. “For those reasons, more and more people are discovering that Clydes make great trail horses. They don’t scare easily – they’re dependable and calm.”

Cathy Behn, with son Logan and affectionate filly Alegra, who was born last year to mom April. (Alegra is pictured as a foal on p. 112). (Rebecca O'Malley photo)

“And the mares are good mothers,” adds Betty. She recalls a mare who, many years ago, lost a colt that was born deformed. Tears well in Betty’s eyes as she recalls how grandson Logan, then just 5 years old, went outside to check on the mare. “He was young, but he understood that the mare was going to miss her baby. When he went to the place where the foal was buried, he found the mare laying on the ground over the grave.” While the story is sad, it illustrates something very beautiful, says Betty. “It shows what connection these mares have to their young.”

To illustrate the calmness of Clydesdales, Logan scrambles atop a mare, bareback, without warning. The horse doesn’t flinch. He directs her around the yard and she patiently listens for his verbal directions, responding on cue.

“There are riding classes at Clydesdale shows these days, both Western and English,” says Cathy. “You need a big saddle, but those are available now.”

Amateurs may find it difficult to envision the Behns loading six 2,000-pound horses into a trailer, to travel the highways for shows and competitions, but the family does it several times a year. “Our horses load pretty easily, but their favorite part of going to a show is getting home and running back to their own pastures,” Logan laughs. “They play and kick up their heels and act crazy-happy to be home.”

Still, the homebodies aren’t without show business flair.

“In front of a crowd, they almost turn into different horses,” says Cathy. “They hold their heads up and preen and really respond to a crowd that eggs them on.”

‘That Extra Something’

Four years ago, when he was 17, Logan won the World Senior Showmanship event in his age class at the World Clydesdale Show, by showing GlenCoe Andale April Lee, “April” to her friends. Last year, April gave birth to Alegra, Cathy’s favorite filly. The “man of the barn,” (or herd sire) is regal GlenCoe Cedarlane Duncan, a handsome stallion who’s already sired three daughters who qualify for the All-American program, an annual contest sponsored by the Draft Horse Journal.

“She’s got that extra something,” Cathy says, rubbing Alegra’s brown and white neck. “All Clydes are born with a lot of style and grace, a distinctive, animated movement. But Alegra just naturally lifts her feet a little higher, holds her head a little higher – she just has that ‘it’ factor.”

Like most businesspeople, horse breeders have been hurt by the recession. In this economy, the Behns keep about 17 horses at their farm and breed foals one or two times per year, rather than three or four. A top-notch Clydesdale with great conformation and bloodlines could sell for $20,000 to $30,000. Average weanlings cost $1,500 to $5,000.

“Genetics are weird,” says Logan. “You can mate a mom with four white legs to a dad with four white legs and end up with a foal with three black legs. We’ve had it happen before. It’s still a fine horse, but it brings down the sale value, because people favor a certain look.”

That “look” has been shaped, in large part, by Budweiser. “The Budweiser Clydesdales are all bays [brown-haired] with white faces and white legs,” says Logan. “People are sometimes surprised to learn that Clydesdales come in other colors.”

There’s good reason for prizing color conformity in a hitch.

“It adds to the sense that the team is all moving as one horse, which is one of the main things you’re graded on in a hitch competition,” Logan explains. “You’re judged on whether the horses are all in stride with one another, whether their heads are all held at the same level, whether there’s a lot of action with the legs, whether they’re moving in a unified way and have a similar snap when they lift their feet.”

Hitches can be formed with anywhere from two to eight horses, and one of Logan’s favorite formations is called “unicorn,” two horses on the wheel led by a single horse in front. “The more horses you have on a hitch, the more challenging it becomes,” he says. “Six is fun, too. I’m very competitive, so I like the challenge.”

Logan, who wrestled and played football at Winnebago High School just a few years ago, recently drove an eight-horse hitch while working for the Hallamore Clydesdales show team, owned by Hallamore Corp., Lakesville, Mass. The Hallamore Clydes perform at the largest fairs and parades in New England, providing onlookers with a glimpse of what 19th-century street life was like. One such event is The Big E, a 17-day fair in West Springfield, Mass., that draws attendees from across New England.

“During The Big E, driving the hitch through narrow streets, with food vendors on one side and a crowd of people, including little children, on the other, was a challenge,” says Logan. “It really made me appreciate how important it’s always been, in history, to have well-trained horses – teams that can make the tight turns and do what you ask, even when they’re nervous about unfamiliar surroundings.”

When everything goes well, driving a hitch is a thrill like no other, says Logan. “The front team needs to have a little bounce – you can’t be too tight on the reins,” he says. “The biggest and strongest horses are in the back, the wheel team, and their shoulders do most of the work. When the team turns, you want a nice curve in the middle, with the swing team, so you have to adjust the various lines in your hands. It gets complicated. You can feel it when you’re having a really good drive. There’s nothing like it.”

Looking Both Directions

As Cathy watches her youngest son describe the adrenaline rush of driving a hitch, she smiles, recalling her parents’ thrill at driving teams with Mr. Conger.

“Draft horse people are simple family people and tradition is a big part of our world,” she explains. “It’s very satisfying to see this love of horses passed through the generations. I’m here in the middle looking both ways – past and future. The future of the breed is in the hands of the younger generation.”

“It’s definitely a lot of work, this life,” says Logan, who is establishing his own farrier business. “But there’s nothing about it I don’t like.”

Cathy concedes she doesn’t always enjoy the paperwork of her job, but she finds its mission gratifying. “What I like best is watching the mares through my window, as they graze the pasture, early in the morning while I’m drinking my coffee,” she says.

“For me, it’s hearing them whinny at night,” says Logan. “Sometimes they all turn at once and run across the pasture together, hooves pounding the dirt, and it sounds like thunder. What makes them do that, all of a sudden?” He pauses before answering his own question.

“They’re herd animals. That’s just the way they were made by God, I guess.”

Clydesdale Facts

Origin: Heavy horses were first developed for use in medieval warfare to carry armor-clad knights into battle. By the 19th century, in the Lanarkshire (formerly Clydesdale) district of Scotland, a powerful horse with large hooves and a long stride had evolved, well suited for Scottish farm fields and coalfields, as well as heavy hauling on the streets of Glasgow. The Clydesdale breed was soon in high demand throughout Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

Physique: Clydes weigh 1,600 to 2,400 pounds and stand 16 to 19 hands tall, or about 6 feet, from ground to withers. (Withers are the highest point on a horse when it bends to graze.) Coloring is mostly bay (brown), black or sorrel (reddish brown). They may also be roan (white hair scattered throughout the coat) and commonly have white faces and legs. A Clydesdale horseshoe is about the size of a dinner plate, or four times larger than a thoroughbred horseshoe. Clydesdales and Shires have “feathers,” or long, silky hair on the bottom of their legs; Percherons and Belgians do not.

Reproduction: Pregnancy lasts about 11 months and 10 days and a broodmare produces up to 100 pounds of milk per day; a foal gains about 4 pounds per day in its first few months.

Appetite: Depending on its workload, an adult Clyde eats 25 to 50 pounds of hay and 2 to 10 pounds of grain each day.

Disposition: The breed is known for its intelligence and calmness.

Cost: In the United States, most sell for between $2,500 and $5,000. Top-level Clydes sell for $20,000 to $30,000.

Locations: The United States has the largest number of Clydesdales in the world. More than 600 new Clydes are registered here annually. Illinois and Wisconsin lead the nation for active memberships in the Clydesdale Breeders of the U.S.A.

Uses: Modern tractors have replaced Clydesdales on the farm, but the breed remains popular for carriage service, street parades and saddle recreation, from dressage, hunter/jumper and trail horse to therapeutic riding. Breeding and showing are a large part of the Clydesdale business; breeders exhibit Clydes in the Scottish tradition of line and harness events at county, state, national and international levels. The Clydes also enjoy fame as corporate icons, most famously for Budweiser beer, but also for other companies that own teams for driving in civic parades and events.
Source: Clydesdale Breeders of the U.S.A.

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