Laura Gookin saw her first Clydesdale in 1991. It was in a pasture near her home in Lakeside, and the huge animal stood out from other horses like an oak among willows.
When she mentioned her enthrallment with the horse to her husband, corporate executive Bob Gookin, that always-nagging question — What do I get my wife for her birthday? — was answered.
Laura’s was a happy episode of human and horse, an ongoing relationship that historically has been a better deal for humans than horses.
When Tennyson rhapsodized about the 600 riding into the valley of death, he had not a word of consolation for the horses that provided the ride and shared the fate. In our Civil War, 3,000 horses fell to shot and shell at the battle of Gettysburg alone.
A century ago, “pit ponies” and small horses were taken into coal mines for hauling and went blind and never again saw the sun before often dying in their traces.
For all the horse gave us, it was rewarded with the bit.
Men, by necessity, generally regarded horses for their work. It was they who had to drive their compliant giants before the plow in summer heat, and in war run them into the mouths of guns.
Women, though, generally didn’t have to swing the whip and were free to love horses for their grace and beauty. And that helps answer why women, traditionally and today, are quick to throw their arms around horses’ necks.
Laura’s horse was meant to be a secret, but how do you prepare a corral for a Clydesdale on the QT? However, Laura pretended surprise as she reached waaaay up and wrapped her arms around that long neck.
You can guess what happened next: No one is satisfied with just one Clydesdale. Laura and Bob got started in the horse business by breeding Laura’s mare to one of the Budweiser horses that were then pastured in Menifee (Riverside County).
Eventually, the Gookins owned too many of the big horses on their five acres in Lakeside. Thirteen years ago, with Bob retired, they moved to 40 acres in the backcountry near Boulevard, 65 miles east of San Diego, and opened Somewhere Farm, where they have 29 horses.
Laura is an active, small, cheery woman of 59 whose love for her horses can be measured by her smile when she’s with them. Bob is a savvy businessman of 78 who will bargain over the value of an animal as horse traders have been doing since the bill of sale was written in clay.
The Clydesdale, over which we’re making all this fuss, is a draft animal originally from Scotland (or “draught,” as the Scots would spell it). A Philistine might call it a beast of burden. That was back in the day when horses had to pull heavy and plow deep. That’s why the big boys were bred. The Clydesdale is one of four main breeds similar in size; the others are Shire, Percheron and Belgian.
The Belgians and Percherons are more heavily muscled than the Clydesdales and are the stronger draft animals. The appeal of the Clydesdale, however, is in the show ring, prancing in parades and as gentle riding horse. Even so, as its utility declined with the advent of mechanized farming and hauling, the Clydesdale has gradually found itself on the “watch list” of endangerment.
The Clydesdale can grow to 2,300 pounds and 19 hands high (one hand equals 4 inches). A typical Clydesdale would weigh 1,700 pounds and stand 17½ hands high. Height is measured at the withers, which is the highest spot near the base of the neck when the horse bends to drink.
Laura and Bob are a team running their farm, but make no mistake: This is Laura’s baby, and the animals are here because she is. Even with the distraction of her freelance insurance underwriting, nothing happens here that eludes her.
She and Bob are answering my questions at a makeshift desk in a small room in the stables. On the wall opposite is a bunk bed that pretty much looks like a bunk in the stables. That’s where Laura sleeps when a mare is about to foal.
Considering where they live, the fear of fire is never ignored. Three years ago, the Shockey fire came close, but it didn’t touch their farm. However, being practical stockmen, in the event of a fast fire they know which animals they would choose to trailer out and which would have to be left behind — if it came to that.
Of the animals that might be left, they have 20 vegetation-bald acres with feed and water where the animals could take refuge.
The Gookins raise their animals to sell; prices commonly range from $5,000 to $8,000 per horse. Their top breeding stallion is priced at $50,000. Bob says Budweiser is casting covetous eyes on him.
Since you don’t need a Clydesdale to plow your garden, a reason for buying one seems a fair question.
We’re talking big appetite here. A Clydesdale might eat 40 pounds of hay per day, half again more than a saddle horse that might weigh only half as much. So why buy an expensive horse that can eat you out of house and barn?
Well, perhaps you might want your neighbor to stare across the fence at a horse that’s bigger than his horse. (Tends to be a guy thing.)
“There’s some of that,” Bob says. “There’s some guys that you know that’s the reason. There’s also a lot of women and a lot of young girls who just love the Clydesdale because of all the advertising that Budweiser’s done.”
Laura says the Clydesdale is an excellent saddle horse. Its temperament is far more docile than smaller saddle horses, such as a quarter horse, Arabian or — worst of all — a thoroughbred. She also says they are much faster than appearance might suggest, and that 80 percent of the farm’s sales are to people who want them for riding.
Have you ever had one step on your foot?
Bob says, “Oh, yeah, last week. It hurt. However, I’ve never been kicked by a big one. The babies, though, they love to kick you. We call it a flyby. They run by, all paired up, and they throw out a kick. They get you.”
A colt or a filly at birth can weigh up to 200 pounds and will be weaned at four months. A nursing mare will generate 8 gallons of milk per day.
The Gookins are active on the show circuit. In 2011, the world champion stallion was one of theirs.
Asked how many horses are for sale, Bob says, “All of them. ‘For sale’ means that I want you to pay me enough money to convince me to let that horse go. Or, I want to offer a price that convinces you to buy it.
“There’s always some horses you like better than others. We’ve a lot of horses on the place; it’s not like we’re flat in love with all of them. Some of them are nice horses that somebody else ought to own.
“We always describe a horse’s flaws in detail. We don’t want some buyer to up and unload a horse because of problems they weren’t aware of. Plus, our pride is our reputation.”
Owning any horse is not cheap. There are vet bills, food bills, boarding bills, tack costs and insurance costs. Bob says they will not sell a horse if they suspect it might be quickly resold when a new owner has to face those realities.
And yet, the horse dream refuses to die. Laura says the mystique is all wrapped up in a dream. “The horse running free. The streaming, long tail. The waving mane. The big, brown eyes. With a dog, it’s a family animal. But, it’s your horse! The fairy tale comes true.”
She returns to the woman-horse connection. “There’s a one-on-one thing. It sounds silly, but you talk to your horse. You share stories: your woes, work, family. Whatever it is, there are those great big brown eyes staring at you.
“I don’t think, on average, a man has to tell his story like a woman does. A horse is always a patient listener.”
The Clydesdales are unusual in that a stranger can reach over the rail and pet their muzzle, something most horses flinch away from. An exception on the farm is a skittish yearling filly that will allow only Laura the privilege.
The Gookins work their ranch and tend their horses with no hired help. Obviously, a lot of work for a couple who could take to rocking chairs, were they so inclined.
Is all this work profitable?
“Depends on the year,” Bob says.
Profit, smofit. Laura would probably pay for the chance to do this. “There’s some days it’s actually work,” she says. “Then, there’s other days you consider yourself the luckiest person on the planet to be out here.”
“I became the luckiest person when I married her,” Bob says, wanting to get that on the record.
Now, there’s a smooth talkin’ horse trader for you.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is [email protected]