BOONVILLE — Not every Clydesdale can be a Anheuser-Busch Clydesdale.
But most of the 28 gangly foals at the breeding farm west of Columbia were born with the genes to make the cut: bay coloring, a black mane and tail, white socks on their legs and a white blaze down their face.
Those features can be traced to Perfection, a stallion with a nearly perfect record of siring horses that meet the requirements for the iconic Budweiser hitch teams.
Sixteen of the 28 foals at Warm Springs Ranch, the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdale breeding farm near Boonville, were fathered by Perfection.
It might be hard for some stallions to live up to a name like Perfection, but the 4-year-old stud has no problem. At 2,000 pounds and 18 hands (around 6 feet from hoof to the top of his shoulder), Perfection is an average Clydesdale stallion, said John Soto, the breeding manager. But Perfection, officially registered as Priestlike Perfection, can sire the perfect Clydesdale baby.
Anheuser-Busch has specific qualifications for the Clydesdales that pull their hitch wagons. In addition to the right coloring, they must be 4-year-old bay geldings, at least 18 hands tall and between 1,800 and 2,300 pounds.
Soto carefully selects mares to mate with stallions to ensure that their genes will produce the desired result. Among the four stallions at Warm Springs Ranch, Perfection has been the most consistent in throwing the ideal foal in two years as a stud.
This year, he sired eight fillies and eight colts.
All the colts fit the requirements to be a hitch horse, Soto said.
The fillies will be kept for breeding because most of them display the ideal markings that can be passed down to their offspring.
Three of the fillies have dark legs, but they could still have the genes that achieve Perfection's perfect coloring.
Although Anheuser-Busch has strict requirements for its horses, Clydesdales can be found in a range of colors and markings. Colts without the proper coloring to become hitch horses are typically sold or traded with other Clydesdale breeders.
Others may be transferred to Grant's Farm in St. Louis, a family attraction owned by the brewing company. Breeders often visit Grant's Farm to see the Clydesdales and potentially buy one for breeding because of their reputation, Soto said.
Breeding and foaling season for the mares lasts from January to July. At the ranch, most of the conceiving occurs through natural breeding while some mares might be artificially inseminated with frozen semen from a stud on another farm, Soto said.
A mare carries her baby for 11 months. When mares are ready to foal, they are moved into the barn's 16-by-20 foaling suites. Here, mares are kept under 24-hour video surveillance, Soto said.
A special magnet on the horse sounds an alarm in the office and sends a call to Soto's cellphone when foaling begins.
After the 150-pound babies are born, they are kept inside for three days before being gradually introduced to the outdoors. Their joints are very loose, Soto said. The foal's limited mobility gives them a gangly, all-legs appearance for several months.
The joints will eventually tighten, but for now, the babies at Warm Springs are tripping and stumbling over their loose, stilt-like limbs.
Because they are such valuable assets to the company, they are thoroughly checked for potential medical problems the day after birth.
"We check to see that they get a healthy start," said Hunter Ortis, the ranch's primary veterinarian from Equine Medical Services.
The company goes "above and beyond," he said. "It's better to be proactive than to wait for a problem to occur."
Mares remain with the foals until the babies are 5 months old, while the stallions are on display in their separate corrals, munching hay and entertaining visitors.
"They just kind of wait in the dugout until the coach calls them to work," Soto said.
The "Fearsome Foursome"
Only four staff members watch over the 108 Clydesdales at Warm Springs. The horses keep the "fearsome foursome" busy, as Soto calls himself and his colleagues.
"There's always something to do," he said, laughing.
Typically, the staff arrives at the farm at 6 a.m. to clean the stalls and the barn, feed the horses and give them fresh hay. During breeding season, they check the mares daily to see if they are in heat. When the mares are ready, they are bred right away, Soto said.
The foals are weaned at 5 months of age. At that point, the staff will work with the young horses and give them basic training, such as leading the horse with a halter to introducing it to the farrier.
"There's no average day for us," Soto said.
This equine routine comes naturally to him.
Soto's father trains thoroughbreds for racing. When the Clydesdales were showing in Phoenix, they stayed at a racehorse breeding farm. Soto would go to look at the horses and talk to the Budweiser crew. They offered him a job to work with the Clydesdales when he was a teenager and Soto accepted a position when he was 21.
He said he has worked for the company for 32 years, first with its California hitch team and later in management.
As a hitch driver, Soto traveled 300 days a year. In 1985, he got the opportunity to settle down with the company's untrained colts on the farm in Menifee, Calif. When the company turned the property into a breeding farm in 1990, he managed both the training and breeding aspects. After the breeding farm relocated to the 340-acre property near Boonville in 2008, he moved into a house on the grounds.
"It's been a great dream job," he said.
Eric Reisinger, a handler and one of the "fearsome foursome," joined Soto in the move from California. He grew up on a dairy farm where he raised Belgian draft horses.
Reisinger has worked for Anheuser-Busch for 15 years and was the San Diego hitch driver for eight years. He said he doesn't miss the traveling and likes to watch the babies grow up at Warm Springs.
"I get my horse fix," he said with a smile.
Although the Budweiser Clydesdales are not pets, Reisinger said sometimes he becomes attached to them.
"You want certain ones to do well," he said. His favorites were two horses he worked with in California named Fez and Kelso, two brothers named after characters on "That '70s Show."
Helping to handle 108 horses is no easy feat, but next year could be even crazier, he said. He and Soto are predicting that as many as 40 foals could be born next spring.
"It will be bizarre around here," he said. "There will be babies everywhere."