Yesterday’s appearance of the Budweiser Clydesdales at the Cheshire County Fair was exactly the kind of event I bought my new camera for. With big brown eyes like these, who wouldn’t want an extreme close-up?

Although I’m not particularly fond of Budweiser beer, I’ve been a fan of the Budweiser Clydesdales since I was a horse-crazy little girl growing up in an utterly horse-free residential neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. Every summer, I got my horse-fix at the Ohio State Fair, where I’d drag my Mom through August-hot horse barns before taking a rest in an air-conditioned arena where we’d watch a ragtag assortment of horse show events.

The highlight of any trip to the Ohio State Fair was a chance to see the visiting Budweiser Clydesdales, so when I heard the gentle giants would be visiting the Cheshire County Fair in nearby Swanzey, NH, the question of whether I should go was a no-brainer. Although yesterday’s opening day was one of the hottest days of the year, I braved the sweltering heat with a sizeable crowd of appreciative onlookers as the Clydesdales were primped and harnessed for a two-hour stint pulling Budweiser’s famed red beer-wagon around a fairgrounds that doesn’t serve alcohol.

It takes a lot of primping to transform eight tons of naked horseflesh into a show-stopping spectacle. Although there’s a traveling team of Budweiser Clydesdales based out of Merrimack, NH, the eight Clydesdales appearing in Swanzey came all the way from Saint Louis, traveling in three air-conditioned trucks carrying eleven horses; seven grooms; a four-ton Budweiser wagon; a custom leather, brass, and chrome harness valued at $80,000; enough feed to satisfy each horse’s daily allotment of 50-60 pounds of hay and 10 pounds of vitamin-enriched grain; portable stalls and protective tent; a frisky Dalmatian; and the donkey featured in this 2004 Superbowl ad.

It takes those seven grooms five hours to get the Clydesdales and their tack in tip-top shape for a performance. Before every appearance, the horses are shampooed and brushed, their manes and tails are braided, and their harness is polished to gleaming perfection. When I arrived at the Cheshire Fair yesterday afternoon, each Clydesdale had already enjoyed his individual spa treatment, so all that was left was the 45-minute process of harnessing each horse and then hitching them one by one to their famed red wagon.

Although each of the Clydesdales has been through this drill countless times before, you can’t help but get the impression that even they are excited by the pomp and pampering. When I arrived at the fairgrounds, four of the eight Clydesdales had already been hitched in place, and they were literally champing at their bits, tossing their heads and pawing the ground as if to say, “Enough, already: let’s get going!” As each horse was harnessed and led into place, there was ample opportunity for nosing and nuzzling, with team-mates seeming to greet one another as they prepared to Do Their Thing in front of yet another crowd of adoring fans. Far from seeming sluggish from the sweltering heat, the Clydesdales seemed to be eager and antsy to be moving, apparently relishing the change to get outside and pull on a day when early morning drizzle kept them inside their travel tent.

If the Clydesdales had had their way, they would have zoomed outta there the second they were hitched in place. But their human handlers were more methodical, checking and re-checking every strap and buckle.

Because Clydesdales are such gentle creatures, you don’t get a sense of how large they are until you see one standing shoulder-to-shoulder with one of his grown handlers.

In yesterday’s heat, I worried that animals weighing between 2,000-2,300 pounds would overheat under the weight of their harness and the exertion of pulling that 4-ton Budweiser wagon. But although their driver was visibly Hot and Bothered…

…the Clydesdales themselves seemed to keep their cool, mostly. Yes, their brushed coats were sweaty in spots, as was my skin…but the Clydesdales at least had the promise of those seven grooms and another soapy cool sponge-down before bedtime. How else would you keep eight tons of summer-sweaty horseflesh spotlessly clean right down to their snow-white horse-feathers?

The end result of seven grooms spending five hours shampooing, brushing, braiding, and polishing is a picture-perfect eight horse hitch that’s ready to go.

For those of you whose Internet connection speed allows it, here’s a short video clip showing the Clydesdales in action: check out that footwork! (There’s no audio, so you can hum the Budweiser theme song if you wish…)

Although the rear end of a horse is usually nothing to blog about, the pulling power of a team of eight Clydesdales is something you can’t fully appreciate until you’ve seen the rear view. Considering these muscled rumps and haunches, I suddenly feel a bit better about my own “athletic” thighs.

And in case the sight of horse butts makes you worry that careless fairgoers might step in huge piles of horsey byproducts, rest assured that the Clydesdales have a shovel-wielding pooper scooper who drives a golf-cart behind the team. Let’s hear it for the clean-up crew!

Although the full Budweiser hitch features eight horses, I mentioned there being eleven Clydesdales in this Saint Louis team. While eight horses were working up a sweat touring the Cheshire Fairgrounds, the remaining three Clydesdales remained in their shady travel tent, where they demonstrated their gentle disposition by enjoying pats and caresses from fans of all ages.

Although it’ll be many years before these small fry will be old enough to enjoy an ice cold Bud, you can bet that they won’t forget the experience of meeting a Gentle Giant face-to-face.