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Huge horses play to the crowds

John HartKathy Haworth of Reno works on the mane of Birkin, an English shire, Friday afternoon at the Nevada County Fairgrounds.
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As huge Clydesdales munched on hay and shook off droplets of water in the shade of their stalls Friday, Mike Nicely pondered his lifelong dream.

Nicely, 18, has been around draft horses since he was knee-high to a foal, washing, feeding, walking, and dressing them. Sitting at a picnic table and eating lunch with friends during the second day of the 16th annual Draft Horse Classic, Nicely reflected on his professional goal.

After his senior year at Bear River High School, Nicely, whose family trains Clydesdales off Wolf Road, plans to attend Sierra College for two years then “go straight down to Budweiser and drive one of their six hitches. Ever since (my family) has had the horses, that’s what I’ve wanted to do. This is it.”



Nicely first saw the fabled Budweiser Clydesdales – famous for holiday-season TV commercials on NFL telecasts – up close almost 10 years ago. He was instantly hooked – er, hitched.

This is no pipe dream. Nicely has researched his prospective career for years. He has been to the Budweiser breeding farm in Menifee and knows it is a long climb from being a Clydesdale “feeder” to one of the six drivers.




To be considered for the top job, a candidate starts as a pooper scooper, then is promoted to guard of the traveling hitch (which is akin to a Secret Service officer running alongside the presidential limousine).

Confidence, not a taste for fermented barley and hops, seems to be a prerequisite for the job.

“My chances are pretty good,” Nicely believes. “I work real well with these horses.”

Friends at the Classic agree. “I think it’s a great idea,” said Alyssa Van Sickle, 14. “He’s got a good shot.”

Getting these and other horses ready to show is as important as prancing in front of sellout crowds.

Asked just what it takes, Vickie Darnell quipped: “A wonderful, understanding wife,” as she washed and soaped Forrest, an 1,800-pound shire horse whose front right hoof weighs as much as she does.

To wash him, Darnell needed a 3-foot pedestal. She moved as if washing a school bus, extending her arms over the top of the horse’s back and mane.

“I respect them for the massive animals they are,” said Darnell, who raises the horses with her retired Oakland police officer husband on a Corning farm. “I’ve been doing it for 14 long years now.”

Dale Thurow spent part of Friday afternoon polishing nearly a dozen $5,000 harnesses. Bob Denney said taking care of the horses means feeding the average 1,900-pound mare 57 pounds of food a day. Each horse also drinks between 30 and 50 gallons of water a day, said Denney, who owns a vineyard in Bradley, near Paso Robles.

As 1-ton pickups pulled into the Nevada County Fairgrounds and white-hatted men and women lined up to purchase wrought-iron welcome signs and T-shirts saying “Grandpa’s Lil’ Cowgirl,” horse barn manager Dwight Gilbert reflected on Mike Nicely’s quest to drive a team of Clydesdales.

“It’s not everybody’s dream, but it’s a good dream.”

An impossible one?

“Not a bit.”


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