The Keeper of the Clydesdales: A Conversation with Director of Heritage Jeff Knapper

Posted: August 02, 2018
The Keeper of the Clydesdales: A Conversation with Director of Heritage Jeff Knapper

There isn't a person out there who wouldn't admit to wanting a “stable” job. In the case of Jeff Knapper, he literally has one.

That's because Jeff is currently the Director of Heritage for AB InBev. This makes him the company's “GM of Clydesdales,” meaning that some of the most recognized horses in the world are under his care. This majestic breed of tall draft horses have played an integral role in the AB InBev story since 1933, when they were given as a gift from August A. Busch, Jr. and Adolphus Busch to their father to celebrate the end of Prohibition. Since then, they've found a place on the local, national and global stage.

Jeff may have started with AB InBev 60 years after the horses, but he is no stranger to being a caretaker. Since starting with the company in 1993, Jeff has spent time working in St. Louis as a Clydesdale handler for 5 years, as well as stints traveling the country as a Stable Supervisor and Hitch Supervisor. After a series of positions that involved a life on the road, Jeff became the GM of Clydesdale Operations in January of 2011.

Jeff is incredibly humbled by the title he holds. “I grew up in Iowa as a cattle person,” he says. “All the past GMs were what I consider to be ‘real horse people.' I have a lot of background in that, including an Animal Science and a Business Administration degree, but I expanded my knowledge and experience with the marketing jobs I held within the company.”

Where does this tradition come from?

The tradition of draft horses may not be familiar to many today, but it's one that used to dominate the beer industry. Before cars and trucks became the norm in the early 20th century, horses were the key delivery units for breweries to transport kegs and cases of beer. Showmanship was important to draft teams and delivery teams: “Back then, all major companies had show hitches. They would compete with other breweries in contests, march in parades, and act as a huge marketing component for breweries,” says Jeff.

Before cars and trucks became the norm in the early 20th century, horses were the key delivery units for breweries to ship around kegs and cases of beer.

But even as motorization made draft team horses antiquated and competitors decreased their interest, Budweiser remained devoted to the Clydesdale heritage that continues to grow to this day. From their first East Coast Repeal Celebration tour in 1933 to the Super Bowl commercials we see today, they remain an easily recognized symbol around the world thanks to continued support from the company they represent. “This is completely unique. Only AB InBev does it to this caliber,” says Jeff. “Strong investment drove them into the American icons they are today.”

Currently, there are over 50 colleagues in this division overseeing 150–200 horses at three separate facilities across America. Jeff's job also includes managing and supporting the three separate draft horse teams that travel the country to attend events and celebrations.

One of his main duties includes overseeing the Grant's Farm facility outside St. Louis (the ancestral home of the Busch family, which welcomes over half a million guests a year), as well as training facilities in Fort Collins, CO and Merrimack, NH. Jeff explains that each facility plays a different and important role in the Clydesdale program. “Grant's Farm is where the Clydesdale ‘prep school' is,” he says. “It's where we teach the horses their manners — everything from how to take baths, to how to meet people, to how to get their hooves clipped.”

At age 4, the Clydesdales are sent north to Merrimack, NH, where they're trained for a life in the spotlight. “They have to be acclimated to intense public life, and the trainers do a great job of getting them ready for life on the road. Most of them live this life for 10 to 15 years.”

Jeff is also responsible for overseeing three road teams that crisscross the country to attend events. “These teams travel 320–350 days a year,” Jeff says. “They'll usually spend a week in each place. It could be a warehouse grand opening, a motorcycle rally, a victory parade for the Super Bowl, or the Super Bowl itself. We do big and small events all around the country.” This means a lot of Jeff's job involves making sure his handlers are well taken care of and have the support they need.

What is a clydesdale handler?

So what exactly is a handler, and what does the job involve? Jeff says that each of the traveling hitches runs the roads with seven colleagues, who do everything from driving trucks to cleaning stalls to exercising, feeding and showing horses. “Their home is the road.”

How do you find handlers?

How does anyone find qualified applicants for a job as demanding as a Clydesdale handler? “Of course, we find a lot of equine enthusiasts, but this program is different,” says Jeff. “We needed people who knew how to drive horses, so we started an internship program that goes to schools all over the country to find anyone with draft horse and big horse experience.” Most years, the highly sought-after program receives more than 400 applicants. From there, hopefully colleagues learn what it's like to be handling horses and living on the road.

What's in store for the future?

“Since 2011, I've seen serious growth,” says Jeff. “We're a very comfortable presence and operation in the US, so the the big opportunities are global.”

“2014 was year of the horse in China, [where] we held a three-month activation with four Clydesdales,” he explains. “It was really eye opening because the brand wasn't as well known there.”

“After that, Russia reached out and wanted to start a hitch...So we did multiple trips to Russia! With the World Cup [there] this year, it was part of the plan to prepare for future trips,” he says. “[For us,] the biggest growth really looks international.”

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