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Clydesdales' handlers admit to enjoying their hard work

Sunday, December 23, 2001

SIKESTON - The little girl grabbed her mother's hand just a little tighter. "O-o-o-h," she gasped, looking up at the massive brown and white horse.

The horse snorted back prompting giggles from the youngster. Chalk up another admirer of the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales.

Currently in the middle of their five-day stay in Sikeston, today the horses are at Sikeston Factory Outlet Stores.

Appearances are set for 1-3 p.m. Saturday at the Sikeston Depot and 1-3 p.m. Sunday at Goody's.

After 20 years of traveling with the Clydesdale hitch, watching the public watch the horses is something George Armstrong never tires of. "It gets in your blood, I guess," said Armstrong about his attachment to the horses and his work as one of seven members of the team traveling across the Midwest with the 10 horses and the wagon.

While Armstrong has been part of the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales traveling team for two decades, Robin Dieckmann is newer to the job. The two serve as handlers, caring for the horses and seeing they are fed, exercised, cleaned and groomed. Each day before the show, the handlers braid the horses' manes, complete with flowers, hitch them to the wagon and send them on their way.

"It's six hours of preparation for a show that lasts eight minutes," Armstrong said.

She describes the job as more than full-time, "more like double-time."

Prior to going to work with the team, Dieckmann worked for the brewery as their travel agent, arranging the travel for the horses, their drivers and handlers. Armstrong, on the other hand, took part in rodeos before becoming an A-B truck driver then taking an opening 20 years ago with the team.

Both agreed it was a great job. The human part of the traveling team spends six to 10 months a year traveling across the Midwest. Typically seven people travel with the horses, allowing six to work each day with one of the team members getting a day off.

The team rotates the duties - from cleaning to grooming to harnessing. "That way you are involved in the whole experience and you are not stuck with one thing," explained Armstrong.

Praising the breed, Armstrong described the horses as the "Cadillac of the draft horses." Armstrong explained they were originally bred to carry knights in armor into battle. Today, as they pull the company's wagon at promotional events, they prove to be equally steady.

Armstrong notes the team has taken the streets during the 15 days of Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans without a problem. "That crowd can be five to fifteen people deep along a parade route six miles long. It was neat, but I was glad when it was over," he said.

He enjoys the trips to smaller towns as well, he said. Shows vary based on where the team is located. Sometimes the horses will be featured in parades such as Mardi Gras while other times they may make a special appearance at a horse show or rodeo. Depending on the amount of room, the team may simply stand while the public takes pictures or with a large arena the drivers can display the horses' abilities as they circle, do figure eights or "spin the top," where one wagon wheel remains fixed on the ground while the horses move the wagon in a circle.

While to the unfamiliar, the horses look nearly identical, the handlers easily name off each of the members of the Sikeston team. "You get attached to them all, even if they step on your foot," said Armstrong. "They are like kids."