MYSTIC — At more than 6 feet tall and tipping the scales at about 2,000 pounds, Merlin munched hay and relaxed in his stall Friday morning after two-day journey from Savannah, Ga.
Also chilling in their stalls nearby were his teammates, a “hitch,” or team of famous Budweiser Clydesdale horses that came via three large tractor-trailers to Mystic Seaport Friday morning.
The Clydesdale teams are used for promotions by the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Co. and will be featured in the 15th annual Mystic Irish Parade on Sunday, which begins at the Seaport at 1 p.m.
“It takes about two years to get one horse fully trained,” said Dave Thomas, a Budweiser Clydesdale handler, who earlier in the day had unloaded the team of horses and walked them one-by-one to their stalls. “We start handling them from birth so they’re socialized and they’re accustomed to people.”
The horses spend about a year and a half at the company’s training center in Merrimack, N.H., where they progress from driving with an older, more experienced horse to being part of an eight-horse team.
“They need to get used to the harness that they’re going to wear and how to pull a wagon and how to work with another horse side by side. It’s quite a bit of learning,” said Thomas, who is from Alton, Ill.
At 19 “hands” (the proper unit of measurement of horse height; each hand is equal to four inches), Merlin is the tallest of the hitch, and also one of the biggest and strongest. He occupies one of the “wheel” positions on the team, which are the two horses closest to the wagon that pull the most weight, Thomas said.
“The two horses in the back are the ones that steer the wagon. They’ll slow it down when you’re going down a hill, and they’re the only two that can back the wagon up,” Thomas said. “As you progress forward you get smaller and smaller horses; they have to cover more distance when you start making sharp turns.”
The Clydesdale draught breed was developed in Scotland for farm work in the late-1800s and is capable of pulling a one-ton load at five miles per hour. The horses are recognized for their substantial white “feathering,” the long hairs on the lower legs that cover the hooves.
August A. Busch Jr. and Adolphus Busch presented the company’s first two six-horse hitches of Clydesdales to their father to celebrate the repeal of Prohibition, and they made their first official appearance on April 7, 1933.
The company now owns 100 to 120 horses, according to Thomas, who has been a Clydesdale handler for 14 years.
“We travel with a team of 10 horses that range in age from five to nine years old,” Thomas said. “We rotate the horses through so they get days off.”
The horses eat about 40 or 50 pounds of hay and between two and 10 pounds of grain per day and will drink around 30 gallons of water on a hot day, he said.
Between polishing all of the harnesses and grooming the horses, washing their white feathering, braiding their manes and tails and harnessing up the team, it takes a crew of six people about five hours to get the hitch ready for a show, Thomas said. Each team will travel about 300 days a year and make roughly 200 appearances, he said.
Also traveling with the team were two Dalmatians, Barley and Mary, who serve as the mascots for the Budweiser Clydesdales, a tradition that began in 1950.
“Back in the old days, when we really did deliver beer with horses, they would guard the wagon while the drivers would make deliveries,” Thomas said. “Barley has been with the team for about three years, and eight-week-old Mary just started traveling with us a few days ago. This is on-the-job training for her.”
The parade on Sunday will be as much fun for the horses as the people, Thomas said.
“They always perk up for parade time, they’ll get a little more animated in the parade because they like to show off,” he laughed. “They really love to show off for people. They love all the attention.”
The Budweiser Clydesdales will be available for public viewing at Mystic Seaport through Sunday during regular museum hours. The hitch will participate in the Mystic Irish Parade, which steps off from the Seaport’s south parking lot at 1 p.m. Check mysticseaport.com for details.