Big horses in the middle of a small town
Tony Knecht visits with Tiny
In a series of random relationships stretching back to middle childhood I have known and/or owned a variety of horses, including quarter horses and Morgans and Thoroughbreds and Arabs and polyglot mixtures of indeterminate breeding.
My relationships were nevertheless fleeting because I didn't have the time or the patience to be a serious horse person, even though I craved the Western romance of the cowboy.
If I were pressed to pick my favorite horse I'd have to say it was the half-Morgan, half-Arab mare I owned in college. But I gradually drifted away from horses and horse relationships, and I never thought I'd be touched again by that old equine magic.
Then I met Neil Shepard, Tony Knecht, and the Clydesdales.
Say the word "Clydesdale" and what comes to mind for many is the beer wagon hauling one of America's blander brews. Those TV ads have the unfortunate effect of associating a remarkable animal with an unremarkable beer. It's an impression I've only recently revised since I now know a whole lot better.
So let's talk Clydesdales. Developed in Scotland maybe as far back as 300 years, they were bred to fill a simple need-hauling heavy loads. Weighing upward of a ton and standing 18 hands (that's six feet tall at the withers), Clydesdales pulled a lot of weight. But to most Clydesdale fans it isn't their size and strength that distinguishes the breed so much as their grace and agility and, above all else, their gentle disposition, the kind of paradoxical sweetness you'd expect to find in an enormous puppy.
Eventually trucks came along that were bigger and stronger than the strongest horses and the breed began to decline. From a population of some 140,000 in Scotland alone they now number about 5,000 worldwide, with the largest percentage living in the United States. People who count Clydesdales say about 600 are born annually in America, and of those 600, a very visible handful can be found on the only authentic piece of rural real estate in the urban heart of Sonoma.
The Castagnasso Clydesdales are local legends and an important vestige of Sonoma's agricultural heritage. They've been stabled along East Spain Street, next to the historic mission, since 1923, and today Tony Knecht, his mother, Deana Castagnasso, and, at any given time, seven or more Clydesdales anchor the family homestead. His great-grandfather Harry began showing Clydesdales more than 80 years ago and Tony, who regularly drives a six-horse hitch in draft-horse competitions, is fiercely committed to the family tradition.
"I think the family is on its seventh generation," he says. "Most people view horses as an investment, but this is different."
The Castagnassos are in the middle of a process to restrict their three-acre plot with a conservation easement that would preclude any future development, and Tony is slightly circumspect about the cosmic meaning of a Clydesdale barn in the middle of a small city. He's reluctant to talk until the deal is done, but you get the opinion he appreciates the determination of native Sonomans to ensure that, along with great wine, fine food, and a sophisticated culture, there will also be the odors of horse manure and cow dung to remind us of an agricultural past no one wants to forget.
Visitors to the Castagnasso barn, with seven or eight giant horses impatiently pawing for food, receive a lesson in physical perspective. The Clydesdales are huge, people are comparatively puny. And yet the horses are as gentle and sweet as any hooved creature can be, with faces that simply look friendly.
Not all, however, are ready for the wagon, despite Tony's best efforts to create perfectly matched pairs. Those horses are given the opportunity to romp the Castagnasso's Arnold Drive pasture where, says Tony, "they're there to be horses, it's a resting place. When they're not ready for harness, turn 'em out. Let the other horses teach them how to be a social animal."
The Clydesdales are not a casual commitment. They eat about 20 pounds a day, they constantly need new shoes, clean stalls, and exercise. In between stable chores Tony drives a truck. But you get the feeling he wouldn't have it any other way.
"Nobody wants to be called an anachronism," he reflects, "but we're the ones who have never changed, so don't call us odd."
From the winter 2008 issue of SONOMA