For those who attend University of Wyoming home football games, game day just wouldn’t be the same without one unmistakable symbol: Cowboy Joe.
Cowboy Joe is a brown and white Shetland pony whose head hangs just above the waste of most adults and at eye level with most young children.
Shetland ponies aren’t necessarily synonymous with toughness. But when it comes to Cowboy Joe, Head Handler Taryn Chapman said that’s what it’s all about.
The tradition of using a pony for Cowboy Joe dates back to 1950. Each pony is donated by the Farthing Wild Pony Ranch in Cheyenne. Chapman said the Farthing family noticed a particular young pony whose story spoke to the spirit of Wyoming.
“They found an orphan foal pony out in a blizzard, and he survived all alone, without his mom,” Chapman said. “He makes a good symbol of how tough we are as cowboys. I know he’s a pony — he’s not the big horse — but I think the background shows the toughness of the cowboy tradition.”
The current Cowboy Joe is the fifth to serve as UW’s mascot. He is almost 5 years old as he works through his third year as the university’s mascot. In addition to game days, Cowboy Joe travels throughout Laramie for various events, to Cheyenne for Frontier Days and the Cowboy Joe Club Auction, as well as the Wyoming State Fair in Douglas.
For all of his responsibilities throughout the year, Chapman said homecoming weekend is his time to shine. Between the football game, the game day parade, the Cowboy Walk and the events he must attend prior to today’s activities, Cowboy Joe has his work cut out for him.
“It’s a long weekend, but it’s probably what we look forward to the most throughout the school year,” Chapman said.
Each time UW scores a touchdown or field goal, the thousands of fans filling War Memorial Stadium expect to see Cowboy Joe run across the south end zone while cheerleaders do the same on the north side.
But the public’s interaction with Cowboy Joe isn’t limited to viewing him from the stands. Chapman said Joe is a true public figure, and his selection by the Farthing family and training thereafter centers around having the right temperament. Today’s Cowboy Joe, she said, soaks up all the attention that transcends a sense of duty.
“In parades, when people start cheering, he does a prance and shakes his head and starts stepping really fast — he just gets excited,” Chapman said. “When little kids come up, he’ll lower his head and he won’t move. There will be 10 kids petting all over his face, and it’s chaotic, but he just stands there like a complete gentleman. When we’re out training, he just gets spunky and kicks up his tail a little bit. He has his moments — he’s a pony — but whenever people cheer at games, he picks up his head. With pictures, he poses and kind of struts his stuff. He’s grown so much in the last three years. He really knows his job.”
Cowboy Joe currently has four handlers. They are Caroline Graham from Morgan Hill, California; Hannah Cranor from Gunnison, Colorado; Kenzie Hatch from Kersey, Colorado; and Chapman from Canon City, Colorado. Chapman said being a handler is a job that requires heart. Chapman, Hatch and Cranor are graduating in December, so the program is seeking 2-3 applicants to fill the soon-to-be vacant positions.
Anne Leonard is the faculty-staff coordinator for Cowboy Joe. To be a handler, Leonard said it takes someone who has a background with animals and livestock and is comfortable with public interactions.
“It takes a special kind of person,” Leonard said.
When the long homecoming weekend is finished, Chapman said she expects Cowboy Joe will do what he always does when he returns to his pen at the UW Laramie Research and Extension Center: rolling around in the dirt.
“He’ll take a few steps and then start rolling in the dirt, then get up and prance around — he does that every time,” Chapman said. “He’s a real funny guy.”
Though they try not to give him too many treats, Chapman said Cowboy Joe is always pleased to enjoy a pile of hay during halftime at games. However, she said he also has something of a sweet tooth.
“We took him to one event at a nursing home and they brought out buckets of apples for him — he loved that,” Chapman said.
The current Cowboy Joe should be in his role for some time to come, as Chapman said most Cowboy Joe ponies serve for about 15 years. In the meantime, Cowboy Joe and Cowboy football fans will enjoy cheering together when points are scored on game days.