The state of Wyoming’s use of the bucking horse and rider as a symbol for the Cowboy State dates to at least 1918. The state obtained trademark protection for the symbol in 1936. That same year, it was first incorporated in the Wyoming vehicle license plate as a means of combating counterfeit plates.
The bucking horse has been a feature of Wyoming plates ever since and is recognized throughout the country. That is fortunate for Donna and me, as the readily recognized symbol has, I am convinced, saved our lives — not once, but twice. Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it certainly saved us from two potentially dangerous situations.
In the 1970s, Donna and I drove across the United States to Boston. It was a time of high tension because a federal judge had ordered forced busing to integrate the schools of African American, Italian and Irish students across divided neighborhoods.
She and I knew none of that. We pulled into the largest city we’d ever been in late one Saturday night. The streets of Boston are notoriously twisted. In an age before navigation apps, we were left to figure it out the old-fashioned way: with a dim car ceiling light and a paper atlas.
Not quite confident we had it right, we forged ahead through city streets until the lights and siren of a police car surprised us. We pulled over. A policeman approached. In a thick Boston accent, he said, “You’re lost!” He didn’t ask for my license or registration, I suppose because I’d not committed a traffic offense other than being lost.
“How do you know I’m lost?” I asked.
“Because of the bucking bronco on your license plate,” he replied. “If you knew where you were going, you wouldn’t be going where you are going. Now flip a U-turn and go the other way.”
“Thank you,” I said, “but, there is a ‘No U-turn’ sign right there.”
“Aww, it’s Boston, nobody pays attention to those signs,” the police officer said. “Now, just flip around and go the other way.”
A few years later, I was a summer intern for the late Sen. Malcolm Wallop in Washington, D.C. I’d worked late and it was well after sunset. I was driving, not entirely sure I was on the right track, but operating on the “try this street and look for a familiar landmark” method of quasi-navigation.
Again, police lights and siren. I pulled over, digging for my license and registration. Neither was of interest to the officer.
“Sir, you are lost. You need to turn around and go the other way.”
Again, I asked how he knew I was lost. It was because of the readily recognizable bucking bronc and cowboy on my license plate — and the direction I was headed. I thanked him.
He said, “No problem, sir, I’m just saving myself a lot of paperwork.”
In Wyoming, the bucking horse and rider represents our untamable spirit, our willingness to take life head-on. We are untamable in our wide-open spaces, but in the city, that same bucking horse can be an indicator that we are far from home.
Dave Kinskey represents Wyoming Senate District 22, which consists of Johnson County and eastern Sheridan County. A businessperson and former mayor of Sheridan, Kinskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-751-6428.