When the Denver Broncos run out of the tunnel in Santa Clara, Calif., on Super Bowl Sunday, they’ll have a little extra horsepower on their side: Thunder, the team’s live mascot for the last two decades.
That’s right. We’re not talking about a guy in a horse costume (although the Broncos have one of those too). We’re talking the grey Arabian gelding that leads the team past pyrotechnics, skydivers, cheerleaders with pom-poms, and an enthusiastic drum line.
Thunder leading the charge of the Broncos team onto the field. Photo courtesy of Ann Judge
Oh, and he’s running into a stadium of 75,000 screaming fans. And that’s just a regular season home game.
Speaking as someone who has had to get off their horse to lead her past a scary patch of grass, it’s almost impossible to imagine a horse doing what Thunder does. But trainer and rider Ann Judge has been making the impossible possible for over 20 years.
We went behind the stall door with Judge and Thunder before they hit the road for the big game. Here’s everything you need to know about the world’s most unflappable horse:
- Thunder has been portrayed by three horses over the years—all Arabians owned and bred by Sharon Magness Blake. The original Thunder (the only stallion) passed away several years ago, and Thunder II is retired at Magness Blake’s farm in Silverton, Colorado. But if the Broncos win the Super Bowl, Thunder “Dos” is coming out of retirement.
“He’s healthy, he’s doing great. He’s 22 years old and hopefully going to be able to participate as well. If we should happen to win the Super Bowl, we can’t get Thunder III back in time for parade [in Denver],” rider and trainer Ann Judge explained.
From left to right, trainer and rider Ann Judge, Thunder III, Thunder II, and owner Sharon Magness Blake. Photo by Angela Lieurance
- Thunder III is a 16-year-old Arabian gelding, registered as Me N Myshadow. His first game was in 2013—at Super Bowl XLVIII, no less. The game was in New York, Thunder II was 20 years old, and Judge didn’t want Dos flying across the country in bad weather.
“We’d decided we were going to fly, and we thought for a 20-year-old horse we were asking a lot,” Judge said. “So I said, ‘Hey buddy, I know you’ve only done preseason, but what do you think about the Super Bowl?!’”
“[Thunder III] was so much fun,” Judge continued. “We had him on the Today Show, on Fox and Friends. He was in Times Square. We were just walking him down the streets of New York City.”
- Times Square isn’t the only unusual place Thunder III has been. In case you weren’t already self-conscious about how your horse doesn’t even like walking into the indoor, Thunder has been to hospitals, libraries, gymnasiums, and even rides the elevator. He once marched right through the kitchen of the Sheraton in downtown Denver to meet President Bill Clinton.
“Every year we have parties for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Denver at the stadium, so he rides the freight elevator up to the club level,” Judge added. “I love the stuff that people can’t see, like going to schools and libraries and elderly care centers.”
Judge’s dog, Spider, does his best to show Thunder some love. The adorable black lab did his best to land a kiss on Thunder’s nose throughout the interview, much to Thunder’s dismay. Photo by Laura Cardon
- Thunder’s pre-game ritual is pretty low-key. Judge bathes him the night before; it saves time the next day and lets him have more downtime before he goes on. They get to Mile High Stadium 2½ hours early for meet and greets, and Thunder pulls out of Mile High Stadium at the two-minute warning to head back to Judge’s farm in Bennett, Colorado.
“I love taking him out on a trail ride [the morning before a game],” Judge said. “I feel like he has so much stimulus the rest of the day, so I just let him go out and lope in the fields. Now that it’s cold, I work him in the indoor arena for about half an hour just to loosen him up and leg him up.”
Judge continued, “They give us warm-up time before the game. We usually have three to five minutes to be out on the field before the game starts. We lead the team out of the tunnel before the game and then after that, we just stand on the sidelines.”
Decked out in Broncos gear from head to toe, Thunder loads up for the second leg of his drive to California. Photo by Ann Judge
- The original Thunder watched every play. Thunder II was partial to people watching. Thunder III? He’s more into meditation.
“He doesn’t care about watching the field or the people! He kind of leans into Sharon and I. Sometimes he looks at us like, ‘People are so stupid,’ like if they’re banging or leaning over the front [wall on the sidelines]. He’ll just put his head into Sharon’s chest like he’s going away into his own little world.
- It helps that he wears earplugs (he’s the first Thunder to tolerate them), but he doesn’t wear them to keep him from spooking. Mile High gets loud.
“I’m always so worried I’m going to damage their hearing because it’s so loud in there. He’s never acted like the noise bothered him, but I was worried about his hearing so I wanted to try them,” Judge said. “He LOVES them.”
“I forgot to put them in the first part of the last game—I totally spaced it. He was on the sidelines and he was just kind of mad at us, bumping us with his head. As soon as I put his ear plugs in, he was like, ‘Ahhh, thank you.’”
Thunder’s custom saddle, complete with Broncos bling. Photo by Laura Cardon
- Thunder III may differ from his predecessors on the field, but Judge describes him as the perfect blend of each of their personalities. The first Thunder was a stallion, and had the ego to match. Thunder II was much more timid—so much so that Judge wasn’t sure he would make the cut.
“His timidity actually worked out even better because he so looked to us for support. Thunder III is a kind of a mix of the two. He’s really softhearted but he’s bolder than Thunder II. He’s got kind of a cocky attitude, but he wants to partner with his people so much.”
- Unlike most other famous horses, Thunder rides solo. His only travel companions are Magness Blake, her farm manager Rudy, and Judge as they make the drive to Stanford’s infamous Red Barn.
“They’ve been so nice,” Judge said. “They’re so excited! I was excited to be going to Stanford, and now Stanford’s excited to be having us!”
- One last thing—let’s address the elephant in the room. An Arab that’s calm, cool, and collected (Judge says she could walk him across the field if she wanted to) doesn’t really fit the stereotype. For Judge, whose ridden Arabs since she was 12, it doesn’t surprise her at all.
“I always describe them as emotional horses that aren’t for everyone. You really do have to get inside their head. They’re not hot. They are so in tune to their people, which is probably what makes them kind of emotional. If you tap into that in a positive way, you can really make it work for you.”
Thunder shows off is photo posing skills with the author, who is trying not to drop the lead rope out of extreme childlike excitement.