Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dairy farmers take hobby to World Clydesdale Show

Dustin and Brian Brooks
Grandpa liked the horses. So does Dad. No wonder then that Dustin and Brian Brooks have continued the tradition of breeding Clydesdale horses from their dairy farm near Sparta. Four years ago the brothers began to prepare for the World Clydesdale Show recently held in Madison.

The preparation paid off in the World Show competition. With Dustin handling the reins, Brookside Farm Clydesdale gathered an impressive display of ribbons including more than one first-place class finish. Considering the level of competition at the World Clydesdale Show, the Brooks brothers were enjoying the satisfaction that comes with being a serious hobby operation in an arena full of professionals.

"There's a real sense of accomplishment competing with some of these other farms," Brian said of the World Clydesdale Show. "And there's the tradition with Clydesdales."

The tradition began with their grandfather, who purchased a pair of Clydesdale horses to do farm work, and he fell in love with the breed. Today, the farm is home to 10 head and is set to grow.

"We got rid of all of our geldings to concentrate on working with mares for this show," Dustin said. "Five of them are pregnant."

The orange barn colors are a deliberate choice too. Brian noted that the family wanted something different and in looking around the business, the Brooks didn't see any other orange colors. Orange also stands out vividly in the show-ring.

Hobbies can get out of hand, especially a big hobby like Clydesdale horses. Brookside Farm competes all season long, but they have some limits.

"About the farthest we go is northern Illinois. We go to the Boone County Fair in Belvidere and we do some parades, exhibitions and once in a while a wedding," Dustin said. "We go about as far as we can on a tank of gas. That's kind of the limit."

The occasional prize winnings, a few paid gigs and the sale of horses help cover expenses. Since Clydesdale horses are so large and take expensive equipment, it's no wonder markets recently have softened. Brian said more people are looking at the breed for riding and there's growing interest in crossbreeding to create animals that compete in events such as dressage and jumping.

"We're also seeing more people who look to buy a mature team they can take home, hitch up and go for a drive," Brian said. "They might only drive a couple of times a year for a family hay ride or ride around the farm so they aren't interested in high-strung show horses."

Dustin does most of the driving in competition. He said he prefers the challenge of driving teams with a single lead horse. A team is two horses side by side pulling a wagon. Add a third horse hitched in front of the first two and you have a hitch called a unicorn with a single lead horse.

"When you have horses hitched side by side they have each other. If one decides to do something on its own it has to convince the other horse too so they tend to keep each other together," Dustin said. "When you have a single horse in the lead, if it decides to turn around or do something, all kinds of things can start to happen."

Managing the herd of Clydesdales sounds much like managing dairy cows.

"Every day their pens are cleaned, they're brushed and exercised, fed and worked with," Brian said. "After the season we'll pull the shoes and they'll go out on pasture and we let them have some time off."
Hobbies come in all shapes and sizes and a Clydesdale hobby falls into the larger side of the ledger.

"It's like a full-time job on top of a full-time job," Dustin says. "But this is our vacation and time off. This is our boat."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Clydesdales gather in Madison for world show

Photo furnished by Clydesdale USA
Four years ago, Clydesdale Breeders of the USA decided to hold a "world" show. The first-of-its-kind show was a success, drawing together not only Clydesdale breeders from around the world but also turning out a significant public attendance.

"You may only get to see this kind of thing once in a lifetime," said Cathy Behn, association secretary in Pecatonica, Ill. "There are 600 head of Clydesdale horses signed up this time from all around the United States and Canada."

The equine spectacle is set for Oct. 20-23 at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, with a complete schedule of events, activities, competitions, seminars and a trade show. The famous Budweiser Clydesdales are scheduled for daily exhibition during the world show, Behn said.

"Most of the Clydesdales in the United States are concentrated in the Midwest," Behn said. "But Madison is centrally located for breeders everywhere, and it's a good location for our Canadian breeders."

A Clydesdale breeder in British Columbia, Canada, may be making the longest trip. The journey for that particular breeder is a community event, Behn said, with the entire county chipping in sponsorships and support in exchange for photo and video updates.

"Right now we're expecting visitors from seven different countries," Behn said. "There's growing interest in China for the breed, and we'll have some people here from Scotland where the breed originated."

Prior to 2007, there hadn't been an international Clydesdale gathering in more than 100 years. Such an event is a huge undertaking, Behn said, but the association was hoping to create something very special for the breed and make a public impression.

"We have our various regional shows around the country, but we wanted to have a very high-level event where everyone could see the results of their work," Behn said. "And really, from a breeder's perspective it takes time. Four years is about right to see results in a breeding program."

To draw the public out to the Alliant Energy Center, Behn said they have worked hard to make the whole show family friendly. There are hands-on activities for children in case parents need a break, and there is a model horse competition for youth.

The real stars of the world show are the horses themselves. For visitors interested in having a look, Behn said that the schedule has something for everyone. Mornings are generally for halter classes and are probably of the greatest interest to breeders and Clydesdale enthusiasts. Afternoon and evenings are for the shows the public may enjoy. Hitch shows with the Clydesdales pulling carts and wagons are impressive to everyone, Behn said.

For those unfamiliar with the breed, a short history is found on the association website: "The Clydesdale is a breed of heavy draft horse developed in the early nineteenth century by farmers in the Lanarkshire (previously Clydesdale) district of Scotland. It was bred to meet not only the agricultural needs of the local farmers, but also the demands of commerce for the coalfields of Lanarkshire and for all the types of heavy haulage on the streets of Glasgow. Due to its fine reputation, use of the breed soon spread throughout the whole of Scotland and northern England."

A Clydesdale can weigh more than a ton and stand 19 hands tall. The most common body color is bay, followed by black, brown and chestnut. The roan trait (solid body color with white hairs throughout the coat) may be found in all the colors.

"The Clydesdale World Show is really the Olympics of our business," Behn said.