Since the time she was a young girl, Shelby McCoy ’15 saw the world-famous Budweiser Clydesdales as the celebrities of the horse world.
Today, she works as a handler for one of the traveling teams that takes care of the iconic gentle giants. Of her seven-member team stationed in Merrimack, N.H., McCoy is notably the only woman.
She credits Stephens with helping her dream up to land the position.
“I have never once been intimidated by the job,” says McCoy, who graduated in 2015 with a degree in equestrian studies from Stephens College. “I had three years of support at Stephens College, where I was surrounded by people who told me over and over, ‘You can do it!’ All of those people helped me get to where I wanted to be.”
In her role, she drives one of the team’s three 50-foot tractor-trailers used to haul its 10 horses, the famous red, white and gold beer wagon and other essential equipment. On show days, which can last up to 12 hours long, she helps prepare the horses, wagon and Barley the Dalmatian. She also cleans the trucks, sorts equipment and ensures the Clydesdales are back in their stalls, brushed, fed and watered.
Sara Linde Patel ’02, equestrian studies program coordinator and a hunter/jumper instructor at Stephens, isn’t surprised by McCoy’s success.
“Shelby took advantage of every opportunity the equestrian program offers all its students,” says Patel, adding McCoy had no qualms about joining the stable crew and working long hours. “She cleaned stalls, fed and watered the horses and worked during breaks.”
So when McCoy later asked Patel for a letter of recommendation, she was more than happy to help her former student become a handler for a team of Budweiser Clydesdales.
“It was so easy to write about her passion, work ethic and love of horses,” Patel says. “It was easy to say why Shelby would be phenomenal for the job.”
The letter certainly helped, but so did McCoy’s dogged determination.
Before securing her post with the Clydesdales, McCoy started her career with Anheuser-Busch straight out of college at Grant’s Farm in St. Louis, the former Busch family estate and home to more than 100 species of animals.
In the beginning, McCoy worked in merchandizing but was soon outdoors mowing grass, all the while asking about jobs with the horses. Four months later, a full-time position opened with the Clydesdales.
The job was a dream come true for the horse lover, whose family settled in Marshall, Mo., when she was 13.
“I remember thinking, ‘Man, nothing would be cooler than working with the Clydesdales,’” she says.
McCoy was 7 when she received her first horse, Pepper, a 30-year-old pony who lived on a farm in Kentucky where she was taking riding lessons. Though he appeared tall to young McCoy, Pepper was short for a pony. He had a dark reddish-brown coat peppered with white and a coal-black mane and tail.
Because her father was in the military, McCoy’s family moved often. But riding horses gave her an instant connection, no matter where she lived.
“I really loved doing it and had a passion for it from the beginning,” she says.
By age 10, McCoy was traveling to horse shows around the country to compete in Western-style riding events. She had a new Quarter Horse named Sonny, who she earned one summer in exchange for training, cleaning stalls and taking care of horses at a stable.
Years later, Sonny, a brown horse with white legs and a big personality, would come with McCoy to Stephens, where together they trained, and he lived in the campus stables. She still owns Sonny, who is spending his golden years at a private stable in Columbia.
As for her team of Clydesdales, McCoy loves them all, but she has a soft spot for a 7-year-old lead horse named Ivan. Like Sonny, he’s a born star.
“When we’re out showing, he likes to look at the crowds and shake his head,” McCoy says. “He’ll show his teeth, and people think he is smiling. Ivan has a sense of pride when we put on his harness.
He holds his head high, snorts and says, ‘I’m here to do my job!’”
Jeff Knapper, general manager of Clydesdale operations for Anheuser-Busch, says besides McCoy’s team in New Hampshire, two other hitch teams are based in Fort Collins, Colo., and St. Louis. Each team is made up of seven employees.
“Because the Clydesdales are an enduring symbol of Budweiser’s heritage, tradition and commitment to quality, we look for enthusiastic and passionate people who love horses and are also committed to providing quality care,” Knapper says.
Each team member completes extensive training before joining one of the Clydesdales teams. They make hundreds of appearances each year and draw crowds wherever they go.
With her team, McCoy has traveled to such places as Game 7 of the 2016 World Series in Cleveland, where fans lined the streets for a chance to see the Clydesdales.
The team also appeared in New York City recently to reenact the delivery of beer to local bars, marking the anniversary of the 1933 repeal of Prohibition.
“The more people who are there, the more excited the horses get,” McCoy says. “They really like the attention; it’s a lot of fun.”
What McCoy likes best about working with horses is the unspoken bond that develops once she has earned their trust.
“I love being able to communicate without ever saying a word,” she says. “Horses aren’t like dogs and cats; they are mysterious and have a sense of wildness about them. You have to earn their respect and trust before having a great connection with them. What has always drawn me to horses is that quiet connection.”