Ann Judge, trainer and rider of the Denver Broncos’ mascot, Thunder, is on a mission of laughter and gratitude.
When anyone mentions the Denver Broncos, my mind does not immediately recall Super Bowl victories or miraculous wins. Instead, I instantly think of my dear friend and mentor, Ann Judge. Annie has ridden and trained the Broncos’ mascot, Thunder, for 20 years. Annie and Thunder (ahem) thunder down the field to help celebrate the Broncos when they score. Ann has trained Arabian horses since before I met her, and according to Ann, we have known each other “forever.”
I grew up in the horse-show world admiring her (as many people did), and I am grateful to be able to continue that friendship as we have grown older. Her powers of observation have led to many significant conversations where she has asked me questions, drawn out issues I was holding in and given me advice I truly needed. The (horse) shoe is on the other foot this time, as I asked Ann questions about life and faith in the public eye.
Trisha Swift: The public figures in the NFL are mostly male. The females are generally young women who are cheerleaders. In that context, in what ways do you see yourself as a role model?
Ann Judge: Several years ago, a friend said to me, “Ann, there aren’t many people who could do this.” I asked, “Why?” And she said, “There are many people who could ride and train the horse, but you’ve been doing this for a long time, and there has never been a news account that showed you in the wrong place or saying the wrong thing or being with the wrong people.” I thanked her so much because she noticed, and also because it’s sometimes hard to be a public figure If there’s something to say that might sound funny, I need to check myself and ask, “What’s my audience, and am I going to be misread?” Even if you have some small celebrity status, you have to be really cognizant of what you say and what you do and how it might be misinterpreted.
We all are given opportunities to be role models in our walks of life. We need to think how we choose to conduct ourselves. It’s a daily choice. You can choose to cause somebody to stumble, or you can choose to be a good role model. If you choose the latter, you need to make decisions on a daily basis to be encouraging to people, building them up, not tearing them down. That’s what I choose.
We are all role models, even when we interact with the cashier in a store! The person behind us may be watching how we treat that person. When we’re talking about the kingdom of God, our actions take on that much more significance. We have to be aware of what we do because people around us are absorbing our actions.
The fact that you are (ahem) a mature woman in a public role with the Broncos is not unnoticed by other (ahem) mature women. Women oftentimes become insecure as they grow older. What advice would you give them?
It’s an ongoing struggle for women, no matter the age, though the insecurities may change as they get older! Many women come up to me at the games and they say, “You make us believe that we can do anything at any age because we have been watching you for 20 years, so we know that you’re not a 20-something cheerleader!” I love that I can encourage women to do anything they desire as long as they are willing to work hard for it. They don’t have to take a step back just because they reach some chronological milestone.
So would you say to them, “Don’t look at the calendar?”[laughter] Don’t look at the calendar! You have to remember that people look at age in different ways, depending on their perspective. I started riding Thunder when I was 40, and little kids have always thought I was old—they think the cheerleaders are old! The other day at the Boys and Girls Club, we were handing out t-shirts with a picture of me and Thunder running down the field, with my hair flying out behind me. Here I was, with my hair in a ponytail and just a t-shirt instead of my bling, and one of these kids said, “Is that you?” and pointed to the t-shirt. I said, “Yeah, that’s me! Look how fast I’m going! Does that look like a fun job?” The kid replied, “How old is this picture? Is this from a long time ago?” I said, “No, this is just from a couple of years ago.” The kid looked at me and said, “You look way older now”! [laughter] So another thing I would encourage women to do is to laugh!
The world is forever going to measure us by how we look and how young or old we are. And if we choose to measure ourselves by that yardstick of how we look, of how many wrinkles we get—oh my gosh—we are delegitimizing so many things about ourselves. You need to decide daily how you’re going to allow the mirror of the world reflect back to you. We have a choice! We can focus on what the mirror says about the changes happening to us, or we can laugh at it. We have to laugh!
I turn 60 this year—and that is a big one for a lot of people—and I’m so grateful I get to see 60. I hope I get to see 70. I hope I get to see 80. There are many people who have gone before us who would have loved to have seen a few more birthdays, to watch their children grow up. It would almost be dishonoring to those friends who have already passed not to be grateful. I understand how God has a special place for us in the kingdom of Heaven, but this is the one time we get this experience, and we should want as much of it as we can possibly get.
Life is not just a bowl of roses. What challenges do you face being the Broncos Girl? How have you overcome them?
When you’re in the public eye, sometimes you’re just having a bad day, but you’re always being measured. But it’s not often a big struggle because for me. It’s usually easy to turn on joyfulness and thankfulness because…why not? Most of the time, I say, “Really? What do I have to complain about?” Sometimes, though, it’s a struggle to turn off those negative emotions that don’t go with that moment. It’s doable to focus on the positives, but it’s a daily process to train your thoughts to focus on gratitude.
Could you describe how you came to know Jesus?
I was one of those lucky children whose mom and dad dragged us to church from the start. I grew up in a Presbyterian church in Lafayette, Indiana, and it was part of my life before I even thought philosophically about things. It was a natural fiber of my daily existence. I was in Young Life in high school, and we met every Wednesday before school, sharing verses and praying together. Some of the group would share stories of how they came to know Jesus, and I was always kind of jealous because I didn’t have a big story to tell! I just always knew God and Jesus.
At the same time, it was never, “You’ve got to go to church.” We loved to go to church. We went to church on Saturdays because they had crafts for the kids. So I started going to church on Saturdays, on Sundays and on Sunday nights they had youth group when my sisters and I were teenagers. Wednesday afternoons I was in the choir. It was all week long, and I loved it! But there was never this attitude of, “You’ve got to go to church or you’re going to go to hell.” It was always, “We’re going to church because we love God so much.” It was fun to grow up in that atmosphere.
I have to admit that it was always easy—even as a child and as I grew older—to understand the concept of God as Father. There are three girls and my mom—a very strong woman—so there were four females in my family. My mom was the disciplinarian and my dad was the peacemaker. My dad was my hero and meant everything to me, so it was always easy for me to envision God as my Father because my dad was such a great example of a father. Then as I got older, I had such heartbreak for people who had horrible fathers. The Bible talks over and over about God our Father, but I thought about how hard it would be for those with horrible fathers to get past that image of a human father to imagine God, the Father. That gave me a real heart for people who have had horrible fathers and come to know the Lord as Father because they have a huge hurdle to leap over.
What is one of your favorite Bible verses and why is it meaningful to you?
I committed to memorizing a lot of verses but I have trouble remembering the long ones! But the most important one to me, I can repeat all the time: “Be still and know that I am God.” It’s one of the best verses, and it’s also one of the most paradoxical. “Be still”—number one. It’s intrinsically difficult for me because I’m such a busy person, but it’s also difficult because of the way that the world rewards busyness. And the second part of the verse is, “Know that I am God.” Okay, that’s the whole belief system. I believe in who God is, but oh, gosh, there are some days when I’m struggling with believing. And I return to that verse: “Be still and know that I am God.” It is so simple but it is so elaborate. It’s one of the most beautiful verses to me.
I know you were very shy as a girl. What advice would you give to girls who are also shy?
When you’re young and shy, it’s painful and awkward, and you have a sense that every time you do something, the whole world is looking at you and thinks you’re stupid. I experienced that. I felt socially inept a lot of times. The advice I would give would be the same advice that I give to gals when they go to riding clinics: No matter the mistake you think that you’ve made, people are not staring at you, looking to find errors. People are very involved with their own lives. They have their own stories to tell and their own lives to live. People, in general, are not looking at us trying to find fault.
A lot of people will tell shy kids, “Oh, you’ll outgrow it” or “Oh, you’ll come into yourself.” But what does that do? That kind of advice isn’t helpful when you’re in the midst of that. It’s better instead to say, “Point your gaze outward,” rather than asking, “When will I feel more comfortable in my own skin?” I don’t know that girls need to be encouraged to be less shy, but it is important for them to be encouraged to see that they aren’t under a microscope, and that they should turn it around and put the telescope to their eye.
I think there’s a difference between people who are introverts and people who are shy. People who are introverts are just quieter, but they are comfortable with that. People who are shy lack self-confidence, and that can be painful until they find a place of security, like I did. I may always have some insecurity issues based on my true introverted nature, but I don’t want to be that way 24/7. So I ask myself, “How can I engage with others on different levels?”
It may sound weird, but when I was young, I felt that I was supposed to do something important. I wanted to be able to be more than a shy, introverted kid because I believed this. And I wanted my impact to be felt. I knew that if I stayed a shy, introverted person, that wouldn’t happen.
When I was in eighth grade, I had a speech teacher who saw something in me, and he took me under his wing. I turned into this speech dynamo. I was the youngest kid to win the Indiana state speech contest as a eighth grader. Previously, they had all been high schoolers. That goes to show what teachers can do! So in junior high is when I decided to call on different gifts. And that’s where it started.
What is one lesson that you feel God has taught you through training horses?
Well, goodness, so many…it’s an endless list. One is sympathy. Sympathy is underrated. How many times have we heard people say, “I don’t want your sympathy”? Well, you know what? Sympathy is a good thing. I don’t have empathy with the horse, because I can’t empathize with that creature so different from me. But I have so much sympathy for them. Sometimes we communicate with them so inadequately—like being off-balance when we ride—so I have sympathy that they have to tolerate our faults, and I don’t get angry when they don’t respond the way I want. Horses have taught me sympathy, and it’s a good thing. We can’t empathize with everyone because we may not know what they are going through, but we should have sympathy for different people. If I have more sympathy then I will become more kind. And ultimately, that’s what I want to be.
How do you see yourself impacting the kingdom of God?
I see myself as an imperceptibly small part of God’s kingdom, and I have no idea if he’s using me as a tire or a bridge or a fishing pole. But I try to live in the moment and draw close to God, and if I feel myself slipping away, I ask myself what I can do to come back. I just hope I don’t get in the way of him using me to the utmost. I’m sure I do sometimes, but he uses me anyway. Sometimes we’re unaware of what our best gifts are, but he knows.