Next time you see a Budweiser beer commercial featuring their iconic Clydesdale horses, look closely at the driver. It might just be Rudy Helmuth. This 25-year-old from Iowa, grew up on an Amish organic farm caring for horses. “I started riding and driving horses at a very young age, practically since I could walk,” Rudy says. “Our family also trained horses so we had horses from various sizes and breeds. All from the smallest miniatures to largest draft horses. I always had a deep passion for the draft horse.” Eventually, that love and experience landed him a job as one of the drivers and handlers of one of the most famous horses in the country– Anheuser-Busch’s Clydesdales.
Now, four years later, Rudy travels all over the country 300 plus days a year with these incredible horses. For Rudy, it’s a job beyond even his wildest imagination. “I think back to the days on that Amish farm in Iowa where I was plowing fields barefoot with six horses and never in a million years did I imagine I’d get the opportunities in life that I have been granted thus far,” he says.
Rudy wandered into one of my favorite bar/restaurants in New Orleans where I was enjoying a drink and conversation with a friend. He slipped onto the stool next to us at the end of the bar and we struck up a conversation. He was in town with the Clydesdale team for appearances in some of the Carnival parades that occur in the two weeks prior to Mardi Gras. In fact, he was riding the next evening in the Krewe of Nyx parade, he told us, a parade to which I was planning to go.
The beautiful Budweiser horses are celebrities in their own right drawing crowds wherever they appear. The evening before I met Rudy, they had hosted an open house for the public at the New Orleans Police Department stables in City Park where the Clydesdales were staying during their visit to NOLA. “Ah rats,” I told Rudy, “I would have loved to have gone if I had known.”
Seeing my disappointment, Rudy suggested: “Why don’t you come to the stables on Thursday or Friday morning? I’ll be there after seven,”
“I’ll be there!” I said thrilled at the invitation. I had intended to visit one of the plantations that I had not yet seen in the years that we have been going to NOLA, but the plantation would always be there. The Clydesdales wouldn’t. When Thursday came, my husband and I hopped in the car and headed up to City Park’s stable area. It wasn’t difficult to find them, the three red semi-trailers with the giant words “Budweiser” on the side were parked alongside the large barn. Towards the rear of the barn, five Clydesdales were plodding around in the horse walker, tethered one in front of the other. The white feathered ankles flowed as their big hooves thudded on the soft ground. To see these incredible animals close up is to appreciate the true size of these gentle giants. Their enormous stocky muscular bodies made them an ideal draft horse to pull wagons, carriages and carts in their native Scotland. Today, in the U.S., the Clydesdale is nearly synonymous with the Budweiser Beer Company .
Rudy was out running errands when we arrived but one of the handlers who had come out to lead the horses, one by one, into the barn for their bath gave me permission to come inside and watch. I excitedly stood where I could photograph them as they sprayed the big beasts down with water, then soaped them with suds while the horse stood quietly hitched to the stall. The Budweiser Clydesdales must be at least 18 hands high (72 inches) at the shoulder when grown. That makes a step stool a necessity when washing them, even for someone like handler Butch Clark who’s not a small guy. Butch has been a handler with the Budweiser team for 12 years and prior to that showed Belgian horses for his Midwestern family. On this day, he had the job of washing the horses before they were put into their individual stalls.
Budweiser has three teams of Clydesdales, of ten horses each. Rudy’s team is based in St.Louis; another is in Ft. Collins, Colorado. and a third is in Merrimack, New Hampshire. They travel all over the country with the horses riding in two of the semi-trailers and the familiar red wagon and the horses’ tack in the other. In addition to the main stable in St. Louis and the other two hitching locations, Budweiser also has a breeding farm outside Boonville, Missouri. Every year, 25-30 foals are born but not all are destined to join the prestigious Clydesdale teams. As Clark told me, they must be 18 hands, chestnut bay in color with a white blaze on their face, four white legs and a black mane and tail. They are also all geldings and four-years-old when they join the hitch team. The smallest of the ten horses that travel with the team are hitched in front.
The two youngest horses that travelled with Rudy to New Orleans were named Cash and Rocco. The oldest of the team, Levi, was 15. Rudy is perched high above them on the red wagon’s seat and must hold 40 lbs. of reins in his hands. Together, with the tension on the reins, the weight comes to 75 lbs. Drivers like Rudy, who undergo rigorous training before they qualify as drivers, must be strong and an expert in controlling the horses. To look at him, you wouldn’t think Rudy that strong. But when you see him hitching up the team before a parade, as I did, lifting the heavy harnesses over each one’s head and then holding the reins in the parade, it’s clear that he not only knows exactly what he’s doing but that he’s a lot stronger than he initially appears.
Each harness and collar weigh about 130 pounds. The shiny brass on them must be polished before every appearance, a job that takes five hours to complete. Between appearances, the harnesses and collars are carefully re-hung in the mobile tack room.
Rudy arrived at the barn just as we were about to leave. He invited us to come watch as he hitched up the team the next evening before the Krewe d’Etat parade. I gladly took the opportunity to photograph them during the process. We arrived at the designated spot at 5:30, as he said to do. The horses were still in their spacious trailers, peering out the open side doors, anxiously awaiting their turn to be hitched up. It was clear that they knew they were about to go to work.
As parade time neared, each horse was led down the ramp to their stall and held while Rudy placed the collars and harnesses over the ears. In addition to the harnesses, every horse wears blinders and plugs in their ears to help keep their attention focused on the road and not the parade onlookers. Their tails are braided as are their manes with red roses.
One by one the Clydesdales were backed into their spots and hitched to the singletrees of the wagon. Quietly, the horses waited, held in place by the other handlers, until Rudy emerged from the trailer, dressed in his red Budweiser uniform and climbed up to his seat. Just before the team was to pull out, the Dalmatian, joined the two drivers in his perch between them. Behind them, strapped to the wagon’s benches were members of the local Krewe d’Etat or Budweiser whose job it was to toss beads to the crowd along the parade route.
Dusk was setting when they finally pulled out and assumed their position near the front of the parade, followed by the indispensable cart with barrel and shovels to pick up after the horses as they went along. As they lined up on Magazine Street, where the parade started, parade watchers gathered near to get a closer look at the famous Clydesdales. Kids and parents alike cheered as Rudy and his co-driver took off the wagon’s brake and slapped the reins to move the horses forward. It would be like that the rest of the parade route. Everyone, like myself, was thrilled just to see the celebrity Clydesdales. And if the Clydesdales come to location near you, be sure to wave to Rudy!