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By Doug Hecox
Wyoming is almost as well known for its wide-open spaces as it is for a bucking horse named Steamboat. Not only did Sports Illustrated feature Steamboat in 1970, what many consider his likeness appears on nearly 600 million U.S. quarter coins, making him Wyoming’s most famous ambassador by far.
Although Steamboat is a universally recognized symbol of the Old West, the true story of Wyoming’s famous bucking horse symbol remains shrouded in debate.
Some believe the iconic image that represents the Cowboy State is of Stub Farlow riding Deadman. Others believe it is Red Wing, owned by George Ostrom. Debate notwithstanding, many associate the horse with Steamboat, ridden by an anonymous rider to symbolize all cowboys.
|This 1903 picture of Guy Holt riding Steamboat inspired the silhouette first used on UW athletic uniforms in the 1920s. (From the Collections of American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply)|
Furthering UW’s ties to Steamboat, Deane Hunton, UW athletics equipment manager, purportedly used the famous 1903 picture of Guy Holt riding Steamboat as the model for a silhouette first used on UW athletic uniforms in the 1920s.
One fact remains unquestioned: Even now, 100 years after his death, Steamboat is a vital part of daily life in Wyoming.
“Steamboat is all about pride and tradition,” says Justine Lohmeyer, a business management major from Thornton, Colo., who graduated May 2014. “Whenever I see Steamboat … I feel immeasurable pride for my school and my state. Steamboat helps remind everyone at that school that in Wyoming the Code of the West isn’t dead.”
Some say the colt was born between Laramie and Bosler, Wyo., but most evidence suggests Steamboat was foaled near Chugwater, Wyo., on the Foss Ranch in the mid- to late 1890s. As a colt, he was gentle but never grew comfortable with a saddle. In Steamboat’s youth, his nose was injured. In the book Wyoming Almanac, UW history Professor Phil Roberts writes: “The incident damaged Steamboat’s nasal cavity, giving him a distinctive ‘whistling’ sound when he breathed—which grew louder and more intimidating during rodeos.” The sound earned the famed bronc his name.
Part tornado, part horse, Steamboat was undeniably one of Wyoming’s wildest residents. The 1,100-pound black bronc with three white stockings was also one of its greatest champions, reigning over the rodeo as a “top bucker” during the height of his career from 1900–08. “The Horse That Couldn’t Be Ridden” was so formidable that only a few men are known to have stayed on him. One man, who rode Steamboat in 1904 for a then-record-setting 10 seconds, suffered a possible concussion and throat damage so severe that he could only whisper for weeks.
“There is fairly specific evidence in the Wyoming State Archives to show Steamboat was appearing in a rodeo in 1914 in Salt Lake City, Utah, when he was injured by a barbed wire fence during a thunderstorm and was transported back to Cheyenne, Wyo., where he died,” Roberts says.
After his death in October 1914, he may have been buried in Frontier Park, home of Cheyenne Frontier Days, where he’d spent so many years terrorizing cowboys.
In the century since, Wyoming’s love affair with the symbol of a bucking horse has only deepened. A bucking horse image first appeared on Wyoming National Guard equipment in France during World War I, UW athletic uniforms in the 1920s and the WYO annual, state license plates in 1936 and, in the years that followed, even a hot air balloon. Steamboat was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1975 and the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame four years later.
Those who have seen artist Peter Fillerup’s sculpture Fanning a Twister just north of War Memorial Stadium, as well as Chris Navarro's Wyoming Cowboy at the new Marian H. Rochelle Gateway Center, agree these works are far more than renderings of Steamboat and his mystery riders. They are lasting reminders of the wild, untamed West that our bucking horse so perfectly represents.
“[Steamboat] represents more than just the mystic West,” says UW rodeo coach George Howard, a longtime team roper. “Never-ending determination on the horse’s part and the gut-it- out strength of the rider.”