Barnyard Basics: Parnell Ranch’s Clydesdales

Courtesy of Jack Parnell
Jack Parnell hosted many sleigh rides during the wintertime, using his teams of Clydesdales. Here he takes them for a drive near Priest Lake.

Heather Smith Thomas

Jack and Michelle Parnell raise beautiful Clydesdales on their ranch near Sandpoint.

Jack and Michelle have always loved draft horses. He grew up in California on a ranch/dairy where his family farmed with horses.

“When I was a youngster, I raked hay with horses, starting when I was hardly big enough to reach the pedal on the old dump rake,” he says.

Later, the Parnell Ranch raised registered Angus cattle and Clydesdales on their ranch near Auburn, Calif. Jack was the California secretary of agriculture for eight years under Gov. George Deukmejian and was the deputy secretary of agriculture for President George H. W. Bush for four years.

“When my sons Randy and Lon were old enough that it was time for them to know how ranching used to be done with horses, we bought our first team of horses — in the 1970s, and our draft horse venture grew from there,” Parnell says.

“All my children grew up helping with the cattle and stayed there on the ranch, and each of them had a house there,” he says. “It was a family operation. My kids — Randy, Lon, Jill and their wives and husband — have also been very helpful in keeping our dreams alive, breeding good horses.”

The dream goes on into another generation.

“When my grandkids came along and needed to learn how to be responsible and have chores of their own, we planted 5 or 6 acres of pumpkins,” Parnell says. “We decided to have a pumpkin harvest and invited about 5,000 kids each year, from all the local schools, to come to the farm. We’d have three teams hitched to big hay wagons, and gave the schoolkids rides through the ranch and let them pick out their own pumpkins.”

The goal was to educate children who had never been to a farm, showing them what it took to grow pumpkins, and enable them to learn something about the horses.

“After relocating to Priest Lake, we did hundreds of sleigh rides each year, taking people out with the horses,” he says. “We provided a big campfire and told stories about the horses, let the people talk to the horses and feed them carrots.”

This enabled many people to be up close and personal with big horses.

After losing their home at the Priest Lake Ranch to a fire, they built their present ranch in Sandpoint in 2010. Jack and Michelle try to share their good horses with many people, breeding and raising Clydesdales for customers nationwide, including Budweiser, which uses two Parnell stallions in their breeding program in Missouri.

“We have many visitors to our farm,” Parnell says. “They come and enjoy the horses and see what we do.”

The Parnell breeding program consists of about 15 mares, plus foals and yearlings. He and Michelle, their horseman Ben Shupe and his wife, Sarah, and Parnell’s grandkids Riley, Liz and Megan still do some showing with the horses.

Breeding excellent horses is a passion for the Parnells. They usually take a consignment of horses to the National Clydesdale Sale in St. Louis, Mo., and also have private treaty sales at the ranch.

Jack, now 82, and Michelle manage the ranch Ben with the help of Shupe, who moved to Idaho from Pennsylvania a few years ago to work at the ranch.

“Ben is an excellent young man and he handles every horse on the ranch,” Parnell says. “Every horse we own, including our stallions, is broke to drive. Everything on the ranch, including our stallions, is broke to drive.”

Breeding and raising Clydesdales is a labor of love.

“When I was a kid, 10 years old, I remember going to the state fair and leaning on the rail with my chin tucked in my hands, watching the big horses,” Parnell says. “My brothers and sisters always dispersed to the carnival and other attractions but I was mesmerized by the big horses. We had draft horses at home, but I always thought those big hitches were something special. I thought that if I could ever afford to have Clydesdales, I was going to own some.”

Heather Smith Thomas and her husband raise beef cattle and horses on a ranch in the mountains near Salmon. To contact her or order her books — which include “Horse Tales,” “Cow Tales” and “Ranch Tales” — call 208-756-2841 or email