If you’ve happened to catch a Broncos home game in the last 25 years, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with Thunder, the white Arabian known for charging down the field after each Denver touchdown and field goal.
What you might not realize is how busy Thunder’s schedule is off the field; his résumé, impressive for any species, includes a leading spot in the Super Bowl 50 victory parade through Denver, an appearance on the Today show, and an invitation to John Elway’s 1999 retirement gala. When he’s not performing at Mile High Stadium, he makes regular appearances at schools, retirement homes, fundraisers, and Broncos events, animating fans as much as—sometimes even more than—the players themselves.
“What’s really incredible is some of the kids, how excited they get,” says Sharon Magness Blake, the Denver philanthropist and breeder who owns Thunder with her husband, Ernie. “A lot of the inner-city kids have never seen a horse. To them, anybody who’s been on TV, even Thunder, is a star.”
Thunder is one of just five live animal mascots in the NFL and arguably the most well-known. Over a quarter-century with the Broncos (the first Thunder debuted on Sept. 12, 1993), he has traveled to four Super Bowls, three of which Denver won. “You can only imagine some of the experiences you have on the road. It’s been truly incredible,” says Blake.
In addition to the Blakes, four staffers accompany Thunder on his outings: a ranch manager, a bodyguard, a handyman, and Thunder’s longtime trainer, Ann Judge (pictured above), who has shared the spotlight with her equine costar since the beginning. Three different horses have played the role of Thunder since the early nineties, all Arabians owned by Blake, and Judge has overseen the transitions from one to the next.
“This is my 21st season. I wish I had a formula, but it’s been different with each horse,” says Judge. “Each one approaches the job differently.”
At 18, the current Thunder is approaching the two-decade mark that Judge and the Blakes calculate as the appropriate retirement age. “Number IV, who is already in training, doesn’t have the same gregariousness as III, but he’s really eager to please,” says Judge. “He has a good heart.” In the end, the most important factor in a smooth transition will be the cohesion of Thunder’s team.
“We do a lot of interviews, and everyone always asks about the speed, the scoring, all of that,” says Judge. “That’s pretty obvious. We want people to understand something deeper—the incredible relationship we all have because of this entity called Thunder. Our team is a family. That’s the real story.”