The University of Wyoming packs a lot of punch for its size, just like its animal mascot Cowboy Joe, the spirited pony. The state’s only four-year university also is all about cowboys, just like its costumed mascot Pistol Pete.
Take a deep dive with us as we explore the two iconic symbols of the Brown & Gold out of Laramie; how the pony became the symbol of the 137-year-old university, and why Wyoming and Oklahoma State University have come to share the same likeness with virtually identical Pistol Pete caricatures.
Tale Of Two Cowboys
What do you do when two schools both lay claim to the same mascot? In today’s litigious society, you lawyer up.
Both Oklahoma State University and University of Wyoming are home to the Cowboys and the Cowgirls as their intercollegiate athletic teams. And both use Pistol Pete as their official school mascot.
The rootin’-tootin’ gunfighter who sports a 10-gallon hat, handlebar mustache and dual six-shooters synonymous with buckaroos of old has been used by both schools consistently since at least the 1960s.
Wyoming claims its version of Pistol Pete first made an appearance in 1917, though verifiable proof could be lacking. A provable date might be more like 1966 when UW first made the likeness available on clothing.
Oklahoma State dates its Pistol Pete to the 1920-30s because that’s the time period they asked the real-life Pete if they could use his likeness. OSU began officially using the cowboy mascot in marketing materials in 1958.
High Noon Gunfight
Things came to a head in the early ’90s when the two schools began negotiations over which would get to be the real Pistol Pete.
“He’s ours. We’ve got the trademark,” Judy Barnard, an assistant in Oklahoma State’s legal office, told The Associated Press in February 1991. “I don’t know how in the world Wyoming would have any local ties to this man. It’s absurd for them to even claim him.”
Indeed, the U.S. Patent Office granted trademark rights to Oklahoma State despite Wyoming filing 11 days prior to OSU’s application.
The universities worked out an agreement, announced in 1993, that would allow them to share Pete with stipulations.
Oklahoma State's Pistol Pete logo must remain orange and black, with the letters “OSU” appearing on one leg of the cowboy's chaps. The UW cowboy logo may be used only in the university’s brown and gold color scheme, and only when the school is named on the cowboy's hat.
Oh, and for the record, Wyoming’s Pistol Pete always wears Wranglers. It’s just how he rolls.
The decision has financial implications beyond branding and bragging rights. College logos can be big business as far as royalty payments collected through the sale of merchandise.
A third school was using a very similar Pistol Pete character as its logo mascot. New Mexico State was sued by OSU in 2014 for its use of a Western gunfighter image. New Mexico has since discontinued its Pete.
For Wyoming and Oklahoma State, the battle over mascot use is not the only time the schools have clashed in the courtroom.
Both made use of the phrase "The World Needs More Cowboys" in separate marketing campaigns promoting their institutions. UW VP of marketing Chad Baldwin admitted in 2018 that Wyoming knew about OSU’s sporadic use of the phrase over the years, and says UW asked for permission to riff on that, paying a reported $500,000 to a Colorado ad agency to fully develop the campaign.
Let’s Be Frank, For Pete’s Sake
Undoubtedly, a big reason why Oklahoma State was granted primary use of Pistol Pete is because the mascot is based off an actual legendary cowboy character in the Stillwater, Oklahoma, area.
Frank Eaton was a deputy marshal during Indian Territory days. He had been a cowboy, scout and Indian fighter. The renowned lawman and gunfighter lived a life straight out of a Louis L’Amour novel.
Eaton was born in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut. His family moved to Kansas when he was 8 years old where, soon after arrival, he watched helplessly one night as his father was gunned down by six riders sympathetic to the Confederacy. Though the Civil War was over, skirmishes continued in Kansas.
A neighbor, Mose Beaman, gave Eaton a pistol and suggested he learn how to use it. Eaton vowed then and there to even the score and became proficient with the weapon.
By the time he was 15, the teenager had earned a reputation as a fast draw. Invited to cavalry shooting competitions at nearby Fort Gibson, Eaton reputedly outshot everyone there and earned the nickname “Pistol Pete.”
Legend has it a teenaged Eaton shot and killed two of the men responsible for gunning down his father after he caught up with them holed up in a remote cabin where they had been rustling horses and cattle.
At age 17, records show Eaton became perhaps the youngest U.S. deputy marshal, riding with famed Sixkiller in “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker’s court where he claims to have been involved in numerous shootouts where some 65 of his fellow officers were killed.
Lived To Be 97
In an autobiography written when he was in his 80s, Eaton also claimed to have shot down two more of the gang that killed his father in an Albuquerque saloon in the 1880s. The real-life Pistol Pete boasted 11 notches on his six-shooters.
Eaton settled down at the age of 29 and staked out a farm southwest of Perkins, Oklahoma, in 1889, where he was first the town sheriff and then the blacksmith. He married twice and raised nine children before he died in 1958 at age 97.
Eaton’s connection to OSU came about 30 years before his death. Students of then-Oklahoma A&M (predecessor to OSU) spotted the grizzled cowboy riding in the Armistice Day Parade in 1923. He would make a great mascot, they thought.
The school received Eaton’s blessing to use his likeness. In fact, Eaton would reportedly attend OSU football games regularly until 1957.
A year before his death, Eaton was demonstrating his fast draw to a history class at Oklahoma State when his loaded pistol accidentally went off in the classroom, shooting a hole in the ceiling. Asked why he hadn't unloaded his pistol, he gave a pat answer he’d come to be known for.
“I'd rather have a pocket full of rocks than an unloaded gun,” he said.
UW’s animal mascot is Cowboy Joe, a feisty Shetland pony that trots laps around the football field every time the Pokes score. The pony also makes many personal appearances throughout southeast Wyoming and is a big hit with kids, of course.
The original Cowboy Joe was donated by the Farthing family in 1950. An orphaned colt, the Farthings gave the pony to the university with little hope it might survive.
It did. And that grit has come to embody every Cowboy Joe since, and the university in general.
At one time, the Farthing Ranch (about 45 miles north of Cheyenne) was the largest Shetland pony breeder in the United States, running some 1,000 head. The original stock at the ranch was imported directly from the Shetland Islands in 1903.
Cowboy Joe I was an instant hit, bringing the football team good luck. The Cowboys enjoyed one of their best seasons that year, going undefeated and beating the Washington and Lee Generals 20-7 in the Gator Bowl.
The university has gone through a few iterations of ponies playing the mascot. Cowboy Joe VI made his debut this past season after Cowboy Joe V retired at the age of 10. Some Cowboy Joes age out, some are retired for being a little too, well, “pony naughty.”
That first Cowboy Joe handler was a 19-year-old Don Joder. He remembers the little Shetland being so feisty it would bite pretty much anyone, included Joder, who always wore chaps around him for just that reason.
Cowboy Joe now has four handlers who make sure the 300-pound pony is always looking his best. The, on game days, handlers do their mightiest to rein in the zippy ponies who get to know their job so well, they are straining at the bit when they hear the first few notes of “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” banged out by the university’s Western Thunder marching band.
New handlers for the 2023-24 season include Ashley Cowser, Kali Soudani and Alexa Rigsby. They will have some big boots to fill with the graduation of head handler Darci Wintermote, especially.
Former handler Rachel Derner thinks Cowboy Joe is a perfect fit to represent the school.
“He embodies all we stand for here at the university,” Derner said. “He’s small but spirited. He’s tough. He packs a punch for his size. He’s a lot more than people expect him to be.”
Deborah Amend also sees Wyoming written all over the symbolic pony. In a 2012 interview with Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov, the current superintendent of the Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site shared her thoughts on the university mascot.
“Some people don’t understand it. Why would you have a little Shetland pony? It’s not very powerful. I mean, when you say the Mustangs or you say the Broncos, that has a little ... but when you say Shetland pony, you think of a little toy thing,” Amend said. “I just think his bloodlines, his tenacity, his disposition, his spirit, all wrapped up in this amazing little body; I think it’s just a great representative.”