Arts & Culture

Meet Big John, the King of “Horsetok”

In Virginia, this rescued Belgian workhorse has galloped into happy retirement—and viral stardom.

Photo: Jordan Koepke

Big John trotting in his paddock in Warrenton, Virginia.

With more than two million followers on the video-sharing app TikTok and ninety thousand fans on Instagram, internet icon Big John is basking in the affection of horse lovers across the globe. Rescued from slaughter by Colby’s Crew, a nonprofit based in Warrenton, Virginia, Big John attracted followers with his goofy, gentle personality, his towering twenty-hand (6’8”) stature, and the unofficial title “King of Horsetok” as the largest living horse in the world. “I can’t help but smile every time I watch Big John’s videos,” one fan commented on Instagram. 

@ohkaytacos The KING. #TargetHalloween #MakeItCinematic #colbyscrew #rescuehorse #fyp #blowthisup #bigjohn #equestrian ♬ Majesty (Instrumental Mix) – Apashe

The rescue group shares clips of the giant equine galloping across lush fields, 

@ohkaytacos I hope he never worries about something like this. #AEJeansHaveFun #KeepItRealMeals #colbyscrew #equestrian #fyp #bigjohn #rescuehorse ♬ You Are Enough – Sleeping At Last

enjoying bubbly baths and lavish massages, 

@ohkaytacos Big John scrubbie with no music. #FordMaverick #equestrian #rescuehorse #colbyscrew #bigjohn ♬ original sound – Ohkaytacos
@ohkaytacos Big John the Belgian draft horse has a wonderful spa day! #SaveIt4TheEndZone #MakeADogsDay #fyp #rescuehorse #equestrian #blowthisup #bigjohn ♬ Adventure of a Lifetime – Coldplay

and playing with his best friend, Stardust, another senior draft horse, in their pasture.

@ohkaytacos Reply to @kchi224 Big John and Stardust are still going strong. #DoTheJuJu #colbyscrew #rescuehorse #equestrian #Viral #fyp #bigjohn ♬ Faithfully – Journey

Big John even takes a cold beer with his dinner, slurping up a vet-prescribed brew to treat anhidrosis, a condition that hinders his ability to sweat. 

@ohkaytacos Cheers Big J, you deserve it buddy. #iCarlyAffirmation #equestrian #fyp #rescuehorse #bigjohn ♬ SUPERBLOOM – MisterWives

“He’ll try any beer, and you can’t keep the can away from him if he likes it. If he doesn’t like it, he smacks his lips together to say I don’t care to finish that,” Colby’s Crew founder Ally Smith says with a laugh. He prefers a Sam Adams Octoberfest or pale ale.

But Big John didn’t always live a life of luxury. When Ally and her wife, Olivia, first saw the twenty-four-year-old Belgian draft at an auction in April 2021, he could barely stand. Big John was underweight, abused from life as a workhorse, and lame as he limped around a ring for two hours with open wounds on his chest. Slaughterhouses placed low bids on him, hoping to export the giant gelding to Canada or Mexico for meat processing. But Ally and Olivia knew the elder horse—who they learned likely pulled at least eight thousand pounds or more, year-round, for his entire life—deserved a dignified retirement.

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A post shared by Colby’s Crew Rescue (@ohkaytacos)

Since arriving home in April, Big John has transformed; his body healed, he gained back hundreds of pounds, and his dull, sad expression faded. “We gave him everything we could to make him comfortable,” Ally says. “And we fell in love with him instantly.”

As Olivia documented his recovery under Ally’s care, the fans poured in. “Everyone went wild for Big John’s story,” Ally says. “People loved him.” 

photo: Olivia Smith
Big John with Colby’s Crew founder Ally Smith.

After learning all they could about giant breeds, Colby’s Crew is saving other large horses with the Big John Initiative. In the past, rescue organizations have often overlooked large horses because of the care their size requires, health issues related to overworking, and need for specialized care. But since the launch of the initiative in June, no draft horses on the east coast have been shipped to slaughter, Ally says.

Unlike off-track thoroughbreds or other athletic horses in auctions, draft horses aren’t built for showing disciplines. But this doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to give: “They’re big love bugs,” Ally says. “When we first took home Big John, he wouldn’t take a carrot. He didn’t know what treats were. When we put his halter on, he thought he was going to work. Now, he gets to live out the rest of his life however he wants.” And we can all raise a glass to that, Big John.