Thunder II and Ann Judge-Wegener
|Sex||Thunder, Sr.: stallion; Thunder II: gelding; Thunder III, gelding|
|Foaled||Thunder Sr.: 1983, Thunder II: 1994, Thunder III: 2000|
|Died||Thunder Sr.: 2009|
Thunder is the stage name for the horse who is the live animal mascot for the Denver Broncos. Three purebred Arabians have held this name, all gray horses whose coat has lightened to be completely white. The most recent, "Thunder III", appeared at Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014. The first Thunder was a stallion whose registered name was JB Kobask. He was the mascot from 1993 until his retirement in 2004, and continued to make community appearances until his death in 2009. He was succeeded by the gelding Winter Solstyce, born in 1994, who took over as "Thunder II" in 2004 and still continues to perform. "Thunder III", whose registered name is Me N Myshadow, was the understudy to Thunder II, performed at preseason games in 2013 and made some of Thunder's other public appearances. Because he was younger than Thunder II and better able to handle being shipped by air to the east coast, he was the mascot selected to appear at MetLife Stadium for Super Bowl XLVIII.
Thunder's job usually includes leading the team onto the field at the start of every home game, and running from one end of the field to the other when the team scores a touchdown or a field goal. He and his rider also interact with fans prior to each game; the horse is particularly popular with children, who are allowed to pet him. The first Thunder performed at two Super Bowl games during his career, and Thunder III appeared at Super Bowl XLVIII, making additional promotional appearances in Times Square and on two television morning news shows. The horses who have served as Thunder have needed to learn to remain calm in circumstances that would normally frighten horses, including being in football stadiums filled with thousands of noisy fans and performing in the presence of fireworks, pom-poms, skydivers, and other disturbances. The mascot is also asked to appear in parades and at many other public functions. He has needed to go into an elevator, make indoor press appearances, visit hospitals and schools, and walk amongst tables in a hotel ballroom.
The regular rider of Thunder is Ann Judge-Wegener. When not performing at football games or making other public appearances, Thunder II and Thunder III reside at Wegener's farm in Bennett, Colorado. Sharon Magness-Blake has owned all three horses. The Arabian horses who have served in this role have respected pedigrees and were well-trained riding horses prior to officially becoming mascots. JB Kobask had a horse show career and Winter Solstyce was a personal pleasure riding horse for his owner. They had very different personalities: JB Kobask was very bold, while Winter Solstyce was more timid at first but grew into the role, being notable for his friendliness to people who see him up close and for his tendency to pose for a camera whenever he sees one. Me N Myshadow was specifically trained to become the next Thunder, beginning when he was started under saddle at age three, but he did not appear at games until he was 13 years old.
Thunder first appeared as the team mascot in a football game on September 12, 1993, where he was asked to gallop across the field after each touchdown. In that game, the Broncos defeated the San Diego Chargers. The original horse, JB Kobask, was loaned to the team by Sharon Magness-Blake, then the owner of Magness Arabians. His initial duties expanded to delivering the game ball to the referees at the start of each home game. He was allowed to interact with spectators and people could come up and pet him prior to games. He became well-loved by fans, who purchased t-shirts with Thunder's image. He was said to be the "second most popular Bronco" after then-player John Elway, and appeared at Elway's 1999 retirement gala. He was particularly popular with children. When the team redesigned their uniforms in 1997, Thunder inspired the team to make a horse-head profile part of the team logo, and place it on their helmets. In a press conference introducing the new logo on February 4, 1997, the team president and the art director for Nike, which created the new design, described it as "a powerful horse with a fiery eye and mane." When the original Thunder retired, Magness-Blake provided a second horse to fill the role. As Thunder II aged, anticipating the future, Magness-Blake provided a third horse to the team, prepared for the role from the start of his career under saddle, to serve as Thunder III.
Thunder leads the team onto the field at the beginning of each home game, and usually gallops from one end of the field to the other whenever the team makes a touchdown. He may also make a run after a field goal, but not a safety. Each time, a four-person human crew runs to the end of the field as well to meet up with him at the end zone and escort him back. Because he returns along the sidelines, the extra handlers are there to ensure that both the horse and any nearby humans are kept safe. Thunder's helpers also shovel up any manure that he might drop while on the field.
Judge-Wegener considers Thunder leading the team onto the field to be the most hazardous part of his duties, as not only is he moving at a canter, but the cheerleaders are in front of him, waving pom-poms, and the football team members are running behind him. One time a person walked out in front of him at this point in the game, but he stopped immediately and no one was hurt. The horses who have served as Thunder all learned to remain calm around things that would normally cause a horse to be frightened, such as fireworks, skydivers and parachutes, and listening to 76,000 noisy fans at Mile High. The only thing that was a problem for both Thunder Sr. and Thunder II was when the crowd would perform the wave; Thunder Sr. would stand still, but it frightened him and he would tremble. Thunder II gets tense and needs his ground handlers to help his rider hold him quiet and still.
Thunder's record number of runs may have been during a 52–20 win on September 29, 2013, when he crossed the field eight times and Peyton Manning joked, "Might have to give ol' Thunder an IV after this one." The then-19-year-old horse was fine after the game, and Judge-Wegener said later that he was actually quite happy because he got to run so much, describing him as "full of spit and vinegar" the next day. Thunder appears primarily at home games, but also has shipped out of town when the Broncos are in the Super Bowl.
At home games in Denver, Thunder arrives at the stadium in a horse trailer via the visitor's tunnel about two-and-a-half hours before the kickoff. At the stadium, he has a large private box stall located next to the visitor's locker room, where he has hay, water, and treats. The game caterers usually bring him apples or carrots. Thunder and his rider usually meet fans and Judge-Wegener signs autographs for about 45 minutes before each game. He gets considerable attention from children. He usually leaves the field before the game is over, is loaded into his horse trailer and is taken out of the stadium at the final two-minute warning.
Thunder has additional duties off the field: he appears at many public exhibitions and charity functions in the Denver area. He also visits schools and hospitals. He has appeared frequently as part of the color guard at Denver's annual National Western Stock Show. Thunder has been asked to ride in an elevator, go through indoor tunnels, be ridden amongst the tables in a hotel ballroom during banquets, and attend both indoor and outdoor press conferences.
Super Bowl appearances
At Super Bowl XXXII in 1998 in San Diego, Thunder appeared on the field after touchdowns. He traveled for 26 hours in a horse trailer, and it was his first time to attend an away game. Upon returning home, he led the team's victory parade in front of 600,000 fans in Denver. Thunder also attended Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami in 1999. In 2014, Thunder was again granted permission by the NFL to appear at Super Bowl XLVIII. Due to Thunder II's age (20 years old at the time) and the rigors of air travel, the younger Thunder III (age 14 in 2014) was chosen to travel to the game. This was the first time Thunder had flown, traveling to the east coast in a FedEx cargo plane, equipped for horses by Dutta Corp., a business that specializes in air equine transport. Because it was the first time the mascot had been flown to a game, FedEx sponsored the plane trip; such a flight normally costs about $20,000. After arrival in Newark, New Jersey, Thunder then went into New York City the next day to make television appearances, including on the Today Show, Fox & Friends, and toured Times Square. Because the site was a neutral zone for both teams, he was allowed to run in the end zone after a touchdown, but not all the way down the field. He led the team out onto the field at the beginning of the game, marking the first Super Bowl where Thunder was allowed to do so.
The owner of all three horses, Sharon Magness-Blake, did not ride a horse until she was 20 years old; she grew up poor in Philadelphia. She married Bob Magness, founder of Tele-Communications Inc., who also loved horses, and they began an Arabian breeding operation that at is peak had 900 horses. Following the death of Bob Magness, Sharon had to downsize the operation and now has only 15 horses, but married another horse enthusiast, Ernie Blake. The couple, along with Ernie's son David and Judge-Wegener's husband Terry Wegener, constitute Thunder's ground crew at football games. The first horse trainer for JB Kobask as Thunder was Tom Hudson, the trainer for Magness Arabians, and the mascot's first rider was Angela Moore, an assistant trainer to Hudson and a graduate of Colorado State University. Ann Judge-Wegener became Thunder's rider in 1998. A year later, Judge-Wegener took over as trainer as well as rider. She has been the trainer and rider of Thunder II for his entire career with the Broncos. She also trained Thunder III. Judge-Wegener grew up in West Lafayette, Indiana and graduated from Purdue University in 1980 with a degree in English Education. She has ridden horses since she was five years old, was a participant in 4-H as a youth, and after finishing college, she became a horse trainer, first working in South Carolina and then in Colorado. Judge-Wegener is described by the Broncos' management as an "accomplished equestrian," and she has competed at the national level in Arabian horse show competition. She is also an Arabian horse show judge who has adjudicated national and international events.
JB Kobask was a purebred Arabian stallion, foaled in 1983. He was a son of the reserve U.S. National Champion Arabian Stallion GG Jabask, and a grandson of the Polish-bred Arabian *Bask,[a] who was a multiple U.S. National Champion after his importation to the United States. JB Kobask also had a substantial amount of Crabbet breeding in the rest of his pedigree. He became the Broncos' mascot in 1993 after a successful horse show career. In 1997 he was kicked by a mare in a horse breeding accident, resulting in a large fracture that required two arthroscopic surgeries on his stifle, akin to knee surgery on a human, and was out for six weeks before he could return to games, with an additional two months needed before he could gallop at full speed. He recovered, appeared at Super Bowl XXXII the following January, and continued to work as the Broncos' mascot for several more years. He served as mascot for 11 years and retired in 2004 after developing arthritis, which made it difficult for him to gallop down the field. He was dubbed "Thunder, Sr." after he retired. He was 21 years old at the time, but continued to make community appearances until his death in 2009 at the age of 27. He was noted for a bold personality, described by Magness-Blake as having "a strong ego." He had been trained to rear on command. However, he would remain calm and controlled even in very intense situations, and possessed the ability to understand when to be "on" for a performance and when to calm down. He was notably gentle around children who wanted to pet him.
Thunder II and III
Winter Solstyce, a gelding, became "Thunder II" in 2004. He was foaled in 1994. His paternal grandsire is *Salon, a Russian-bred Arabian stallion from the Tersk Stud exported first to Germany and later brought to the United States. Winter Solstyce's maternal grandsire is *Gondolier, who was a Polish National Champion and World Champion Arabian stallion at the Salon du Cheval in Paris, imported to the U.S. in 1981. The remainder of his pedigree consists of other Arabian horses tracing to the breeding programs of Poland and Russia, and he is linebred to the stallion Negatiw, who appears four times in his pedigree. Winter Solstyce was Magness-Blake's personal riding horse for several years prior to becoming the Broncos' mascot. He now lives at Wegener's farm in Bennett, Colorado along with Thunder III, Me N Myshadow, who has the stall next door.
Thunder II stands 14.3 hands (59 inches, 150 cm) tall and weighs over 900 pounds (410 kg). Nicknamed "Dos" by Judge-Wegener, Thunder II was a more timid horse and has a more subdued personality than his predecessor. Initially, he was very nervous of the white numbers on the football field and would try to jump over them. He also was afraid of the cheerleaders' pom-poms. Judge-Wegener and the rest of Thunder's team initially took him to the football field of a local high school for training and practice. His handlers used operant conditioning with positive reinforcement to associate pom-poms with a carrot treat; he soon would turn to his handlers and look for a treat whenever he saw a cheerleader with pom-poms. He learned, apparently on his own, to pose for cameras by looking at the photographer and putting his ears forward. He is a very people-focused horse who is friendly and gentle toward children who meet him up close prior to each game, and actively observes the antics of people in the stands during games when he is between performances on the field.
Me N Myshadow, foaled in 2000, is the third purebred Arabian to serve as Thunder. As "Thunder III", he worked at a few preseason home games in 2013, and the younger gelding has been making most of the mascot's recent public appearances in the Denver community. He is the horse who was shipped to New Jersey to appear at the Super Bowl. Me N Myshadow is sired by Monarch AH and, making him something of a cousin to Winter Solstyce, he is also out of a *Gondolier daughter. Monarch AH was a race horse who won 19 of his 23 races, including several graded stakes races for Arabians, and earned $213,646. He was a son of the Polish import *Wiking, who was the all-time leading sire of Arabian race horses. When Magness-Blake had to downsize her horse breeding program, Monarch AH was sold to Sheikh Sultan Bin Zayad Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates. Thunder III has never been shown, but was specifically trained for the role of Thunder since he began working with Judge-Wegener at the age of three. He was exposed to many experiences, attending open horse shows to become accustomed to crowds and activity, going to fundraisers where he had to walk between tables in a hotel ballroom, and developed into a horse who is interested in and excited to do new things.
- *An asterisk before the name of an Arabian horse indicates that the horse was imported to the United States.
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