It’s a sunny March day outside the sleepy town of Bennett, a blissfully small burg about 40 minutes east of the chaos of Aurora. The town boasts a car wash built for one and a chihuahua that looks both ways before he crosses the road. And it’s also the home of Thunder, the Denver Broncos live mascot, and the woman who teaches Thunder all he knows, Ann Judge-Wegener.
The chirping birds and idyllic ranch are as far removed as possible from game days during the National Football League season. That’s when Wegener leads the 14-year-old white Arabian around Sports Authority Field at Mile High with music blaring, fireworks flying and 75,000 fans screaming almost non-stop during the games.
Wegener is boundless enthusiasm whose small stature belies her explosive energy. She’s a longtime trainer, horse judge and self-proclaimed “horse philosopher,” and she’s the constant voice of reason in Thunder’s ear in the midst of chaos or tranquility.
In a 250-by-150-foot enclosure outside a show barn, Wegener goes about the business of earning the trust of the 1,000-pound horse so she can keep him calm and moving like a marionette on game days. She keeps Thunder safe from wayward players, racing photographers or fans throwing cups out of the stands.
Wegener has been the official trainer and rider of Thunder — all three of them — for the past 18 years. She let us in on the glamorous and not-so-glamorous parts of the a job “every little girl dreams of having,” which ranges from being star of the show to cleaning up Thunder droppings.
QUESTION: What else do you do at your ranch besides work with Thunder?
ANSWER: “I’ve got room to house about 40 horses in the show barn, but right now I’ve got about 15 that are here and in training. It’s just me and my farm manager, who helps me with saddling and colt breaking. It’s a lot to manage … This is the show season for people like me, it basically starts on Jan. 1 with the Stock Show, then an Arabian Show in Scottsdale and it goes on from there … I have Western Dressage horses, Arabians and others all gearing up for world championships right now … I judge all the time, too. I just judged the New Zealand miniature national championships in Christchurch, New Zealand. I’ve judged in Russia and Australia and all over the country.”
Q: How did you get the chance to work with Thunder?
A: “Sharon Magness (Blake), who owns Thunder, and her late husband had been the largest breeders of Arabian horses in the United States for at least a decade. They had 450 horses at their ranch in Fort Lupton, so they had a huge pool from which to choose Thunder. The trainer who first trained Thunder, Tom Hudson, said I have five horses, can you ride one of them? I had my own place, and I did some of their horses, so Sharon knew me from that. She actually had one of her employees riding Thunder before. She was a sweet gal, an amateur and she was 19 at the time, so it blew her mind. Horses are sensitive creatures, so as she got frazzled, the horse got frazzled and started having some behavioral problems. Sharon called me and asked, ‘Would you considering riding Thunder?’ I made sure to count to three so I didn’t seem too eager, and I said ‘Yes! Are you kidding? Of course!’”
Q: How do you go into preparing a horse to serve as Thunder?
A: “Thunder Three came here when he was 3 and he’s 14 now. People think these making of Thunders happens overnight, but it doesn’t. It’s years and years of what I call faith walks. Horses are flight creatures, not fight creatures, so their only way of defending themselves if they are in danger is to run away. So a horse naturally believes that pyro and fireworks and 75,000 people are something to be fearful of, so their flight instinct would usually be initiated in that situation. It takes a lot of time, but it’s not about desensitizing. You can’t desensitize a horse because a horse is a horse is a horse. If something is fearful to him, as long as he looks to me, and I tell him he’s OK, he’s OK.”
Q: What’s the difference between the three horses who have served as Thunder in terms of personality and how they handle game day?
A: “Thunder Two was more active, he would unscrew the tops of water bottles and squish out all the water, or he’d get bored and zip and unzip our coats. We had to find things for him to do all the time, but this one just wants to stand there and go to sleep. Thunder One wanted to watch the game, Thunder Two wanted to watch the crowd, and this one doesn’t want to watch either. He thinks the players are stupid, and the crowd is stupid, he just wants to go to sleep. People ask me all the time, ‘Is there something wrong with Thunder?’ And I just say ‘no, this is just how he is.’ They all have very different personalities.”
Q: Obviously the Super Bowl game was rough for the team, but what was the highlight of the trip to New York for you?
A: “We got to walk Thunder on the streets of New York City, which was pretty cool. We started at the Today Show and then Fox and Friends asked would you come down talk with us, we’re just a few blocks away. It turned out to be like 20 blocks away, so we’re just walking Thunder 20 blocks, we had no idea. We got to take him to Times Square, and they put his picture up on the board where they advertise the Broadway shows.”
Q: What kinds of unexpected things happen on the field?
A: “We’ve had a couple of circumstances where things haven’t happened like they were supposed to. At the Super Bowl, the day before the game, they asked if they could do pyro and we said ‘sure.’ So we were loaded in the tunnel, with some kids pretending to be the team behind Thunder and the pyro goes off, we count to three and the door opens. We practiced it that way twice. Before the game, the players were really excited and all of a sudden the door just opens with no pyro and they say ‘Thunder, you’re on camera.’ I had to make a quick decision. Do we go and take the risk, or do they go on without us? We went. You can watch it on video, as the pyro is going off, he’s running forward and his eyes are happy and bright, but you can tell every time he changes leads, something is going “BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!” Surprising things do happen, but I can’t allow it to affect him. I tell Sharon and our team all the time, do not allow yourselves to get amped up. Even if it is a playoff game we are losing and then it looks like we are going to win. Thunder doesn’t understand winning or losing, so we have to stay the same all the time. To him, amped up means danger.”