Like very large dogs
Neil Shepard's Clydesdales are his life
In Sonoma, there are lots of equestrian people.
They have stables and Thoroughbreds and expensive toys and Stetson hats. For them, horses are hobbies.
And then there is Neil Shepard. He has a mountainside trailer, some sweat-stained leather chaps, a 400-pound anvil and six snorting Clydesdales.
For him, horses are his life and the trailer is home.
That home is dwarfed by towering stands of redwood and oak and by the six snorting behemoths that crowd the paddock fence whenever he is near.
Horses and trailer, paddock and barns are nestled among trees and vineyards on the side of Sonoma Mountain, hidden from the hustle and flow of the Valley below. And that's how Neil likes it.
It's a loamy, still place where leaning over a campfire with a tin mug of beans wouldn't feel out of place.
Few things feel out of place in the company of Neil, it's just that he lives a life that seems frozen in time. From his legendary property to his artisan farrier work-shoeing horses, building carriages-to the white straw gambler and suspenders that limn his tall frame, it is the past that is Neil's present. This isn't necessarily intentional and it's certainly not affectation. It is simply Neil.
We sit on his back deck, and, save for his house and pickup truck, civilization is all but replaced by quiet and the early dusk of the woods.
Neil likes it so much so he doesn't want to leave, and who could blame him?
"I'm always more comfortable here," he says. "I'd rather be here (than anywhere else). Whenever my mom would want to take us somewhere, I would ask where and why and how long and how far, and then I would go hide. And she'd have to come find me."
Here Neil has everything he needs: paddocks with beautiful black steeds; heirloom land he knows so well it's branded on his palms; a blacksmith's barn full of antique carriages and iron and horseshoes and Amish wagon parts; and some non-human characters to keep the place interesting-two hoary potbellied pigs named Hamlet and Wheeler ("who likes to run over and tear up my dad's garden") and a couple of adopted rescue animals. Penner, a gray tabby with a broken tail, shadows his every footfall at a respectful distance.
While he holds a part-time job as a mechanic, Neil spends a big chunk of his time lately plying an ancient profession-manipulating iron and wood into brightly painted wagon wheels. He's made 150 so far.
"For me it means a lot to keep the craft going that my grandfather did, to be a blacksmith and work with steel and iron."
And then there are his horses.
When Neil does pry himself away from home, you'll see him tipping his hat at fairs and parades as he materializes out of the 19th century atop a magnificent carriage, holding the reins of strutting Clydesdales. Neil is, in fact, one of the reasons why we still attend parades and why we hoist small children onto our shoulders to bear witness. His rig creates the kind of ethereal, fabled moment in which all else recedes when it passes. The ringing artillery made by the heavy anvils of draft horse hooves and the sheer disproportion of those august beasts to any other creatures in sight automatically inspire awe.
Neil has always lived with horses-always has and always will. As kin of the Shepard clan and great-grandson to Jack London's step-sister, Eliza, Neil sprouted up here among the hills and dales of Jack London's Beauty Ranch in a house made of three wooden vacation cabins that his grandfather pushed together with a bulldozer.
Today he owns eight Clydesdales. Two of them are pastured in Sebastopol, while the rest of his enormous equines-Max, Sax, Sonny, Gus, Willie and Leo-frolic 200 feet from where he rests his head.
"I can hear them at night," he says protectively, before downplaying their affections. "I'm their meal ticket. They're driven by food. They'll sit and glare at me through the fence (when they're hungry)." He grins.
Sure enough, a hollow CLUNK-CLUNK-CLUNK soon reverberates up from the aluminum fence, and from behind a mossy scruff of oak, a muzzle the size of an obelisk rattles the gate in exasperation.
As we approach the fence they sidle over to meet us on white feathered boots, nodding and pricking their ears forward. Light horses average 1,200 pounds but drafts weigh in between 1,800 and 2,000, Neil tells me. His are black as coffee grounds and built like castles, their necks like long, swinging turrets that dip over the fence to greet us. They blink big obsidian eyes and sniff eagerly, nostrils blasting warm gusts of wind.
"Their hearing is very good," says Neil. "I can talk to them. They know their names." This is extremely important when he's driving in parades, for his voice can calm and command their nerves during the raucous din of cheering crowds, flashing fire engines, motorcycles, music, and sirens.
Does each one have a unique personality? "Absolutely."
"Little Leo" is laid back and Max is the alpha-male and blue-eyed Willie is kind of a card. His oldest horse is 25-year-old Danny, whom Neil has owned since he was a four-year-old colt.
"He's a great horse to drive but he'll make you pay for it." Despite his age, Danny projects an antsy, if endearing, restlessness. "He'll pull to the left and he'll pull to the right, or he wants to rear... He reminds me of a two-year-old boy that needs to pee."
Goliaths that they are, Neil's charges follow us eagerly along the fence like very, very large dogs. He steps into the paddock, stroking their jaws, guiding them this way or that; they submit to his cues with the amenity of puppies. And they are patently not. He makes it look easy, but draft horses are challenging to care for.
"It's harder to keep them," he says, "and it's expensive to shoe them."
He does the shoeing himself, shaping red-hot shoes on that enormous anvil, both because he knows their feet better than anyone else could, and because otherwise it would cost him somewhere between $250 and $400 per horse. Still, he has to shoe each one every six to eight weeks and the job takes about three hours.
"Getting a young horse going" (or successfully training it) is one of Neil's biggest challenges. As of now he can only drive four in an event; he dreams of someday driving six, like his friend Tony Knecht with the Castagnasso teams in Sonoma.
"My goal is to have six broke horses," he laughs. "I've got about a year left."
Simply preparing them for an event can take half a day, even with three or four additional hands. In the end it's worth it.
He may drive his horses with meticulous command, but the life coursing through their monstrous veins resists just enough to make them radiate some kind of primal sovereignty, a nobility passed down from the ancients, something we can see in the shake of their harnesses.
Maybe that's why people give Neil and his horses standing ovations. In grand style those Clydesdales have pulled chiefs, parade marshals, newlyweds, Girl Scouts and twenty-foot Christmas trees. They turn heads and silence onlookers.
"I do it to see the look on small kids' faces and (the faces of) older folks who grew up before the tractor era," Neil says. "There's always an old-timer who comes up to tell me their own story."
Neil seems to think these stories, and the old ways in general, are worth telling. And when Scout Troop 409 waves from an antique green wagon pulled by Max and Sax in the Glen Ellen Fair, he's entrusting a whole new generation with their own story, delivered on the backs of noble giants.
From the winter 2008 issue of SONOMA