The people behind the pony

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The Peruna handlers pose on the field in Ford Stadium. (Courtesy of Emma Blackwood)

Peruna steals the spotlight sprinting across the football field when SMU makes a touchdown, but it’s the people trying to keep up with him that make the magic happen.

Those people are Peruna handlers. Here is the inside scoop on what it takes to be one of the people behind the pony, from the perspectives of three handlers: Emma Blackwood, a business management major from California; Adam Price, a finance major from Texas; and Charlie Albright, a computer science and economics major from Texas.

To become a Peruna handler, students have to try out.

“Tryouts were really hard,” Blackwood said. “We had to run five 110 meter sprints in about 90 degree weather.”

Not only was it hot and unnerving, but most of them were meeting Peruna for the first time. Contenders tried to get him to like them and impress the coach.

“My first run was with an experienced handler,” Albright, a new handler this year, said. “Peruna managed to swing his back end around mid-run and kick me in the back.”

Despite that, Albright still made it on the team. He is only one of the seven people trying out to have been chosen.

All seven handlers have had their share of Peruna’s kicking and biting.

“He’s nipped at some bad places,” Price said.

Albright warned that you have to watch him because “he’ll slowly start moving his back legs toward you and kick. He likes to test us.”

The handlers also serve as the human wall between Peruna and the rest of the fans. If he is going to kick, they have to take the hit.

He’s usually irritated on game day “because there’s all this amazing grass on the boulevard and he’s always hungry,” Albright said.

Handlers have to have their full attention on Peruna at all times while at events. If kids try to walk behind Peruna, they have to snatch them before the mustang gets a leg on them. They have to know what makes him tick and are in charge of keeping him calm to be the prized and praised pony SMU loves.

“He loves it when you scratch his withers [where his mane ends and his back starts]. He twitches his lip and makes this really ridiculous face,” Blackwood said.

Peruna was featured in one President Bush’s first Instagram photos from the first home football game in the fall.

“That’s one of my favorite experiences being a handler.” Price said. “Not many people can say they have a picture with the president on his Instagram.”

Though Peruna is pretty sassy, he is also extremely spirited. His spirit is why the handlers are excited to be a part of the spirit team experience.

“It’s a great opportunity to connect with the fans and really be a part of that energy being on the field,” Price said. “At first I was a little hesitant because it’s a very public position, but that experience, along with the energy and excitement of truly being a part of the field is amazing.”

There is quite a bit of work that goes along with game day. Two handlers meet early in the morning at the red-hot Ford-150 truck designated for driving to Peruna’s secret location. They have to brush him, sometimes wash him depending on how much fun he’s been having rolling around, and even paint his hooves black.

They put shine all over his coat “and we even tell him how pretty he looks,” said Albright.

They drive him to the boulevard, get him dressed and stay on watch. They parade him to the stadium, where he runs leading the football team onto the field. Peruna is run across the field almost every quarter. When it’s all over, they relax him. Then, the handles return him his home and give him food that they know he’s been thinking about all day.

Being a Peruna handler is not just a job, it’s a relationship. Peruna may not be the nicest pony, but he is young, feisty and embodies SMU spirit. The handlers are proud to work with him and each other.

For those interested in being a Peruna handler, contact Tracy Veliz at tveliz@smu.edu.

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