Holloway's transformation into “Smokin’ Joe” started just a few years ago while volunteering at a horse rescue.
The former attorney decided to buck up, and at 72 years old, started training -- and eventually competing -- in extreme cowboys races around the country.
Joe’s drastic—and somewhat dangerous—choice in hobby didn’t surprise Sunny at all.
“I would say, ‘My husband, the lunatic,’” Sunny said with a laugh. “It’s important for him to find a challenge and do it.”
Sunny also has a good humor about the other female in her husband’s life.
“Sunny tells a lot of jokes,” Joe said, recalling one of her favorites. “Oh, Joe’s out with Annie tonight.’”
Annie is the beautiful 17-year-old horse that occupies much of Joe’s time. Annie isn't technically Joe’s horse, but he happily tends to her as if she were.
“I know she knows who I am. 'Ain’t no doubt about that," Joe said during their grooming routine. “A horse's eyes tell you a lot. And when I’m grooming her, she’s got her eye right on me.”
Smokin’ Joe and Annie have an unspoken understanding, one that’s unique among cowboys and their horses.
“If you have any thoughts of hesitating, that’s gonna mess her up. She can read your mind,” Joe explains as he takes Annie through some drills.
Annie’s least favorite is one that requires her to walk through a shallow box full of water. From Annie’s angle, the water looks deep with no end in sight. Joe says this is why a cowboy’s bond with his horse is so important. Annie has to trust Joe will take care of her.
“If we’re looking at this box full of water, she’s got to believe there’s a bottom to it; that it’s not going to lead down to China or anything like that," Joe explained.
In turn, Annie takes care of Joe. Like any other extreme sport, there are the inevitable accidents and falls during trainings.
“I’d always get these ‘be careful’ speeches and ‘watch out for this, watch out for that,’” Joe said teasingly of his wife’s warnings. It’s the reaction one would expect from a cowboy named Smokin’ Joe.
“Well, one time you did fall off,” Sunny reminded her husband sweetly.
But Joe said with every stumble, tumble and roll, Annie always has her eye on her cowboy, making sure he makes it through. It’s as if Annie is fully aware that there is an 80-year-old man on her back.
But it wasn’t a stumble, tumble or fall that forced Smokin’ Joe Holloway to hang up his cowboy hat last year.
“He says, ‘I see three blockages that are severe, like 80-something percent,’” Joe said, repeating the words the doctor spoke in the office that day. “You need surgery, and they have a surgical slot in the morning.”
The magnitude of the surgery didn’t immediately sink in for Smokin’ Joe.
“He even said to the doctor, ‘I have a race coming up!,’” Sunny remembered, “And the doctor said, ‘No, you don’t understand. You’re not going to do that.’”
The doctors later found a fourth blockage. Smokin’ Joe Holloway underwent a quadruple-bypass surgery at age 79.
Recovery was tough.
Doctors had to implant a pacemaker in Joe’s chest. He spent 12 days in the hospital, which felt like an excruciating amount of a time for a man who always has a task. After all, there are no spoons to clean when you’re laid up in a hospital bed.
Despite it all, Joe was determined to get back on his horse.
“It never entered my mind that he was not going to do these things. That’s just Joe. He does it,” Sunny said.
Weeks turned to month as Smokin’ Joe worked to regain his strength and stamina. He and Annie put in hours of practice, until finally, they were able to return to the race.
A year after the surgery, Smokin’ Joe and Annie are still at it.
Last week, the pair competed in an extreme cowboy race held in Hall County.
“When we enter the arena, and the announcer’s talking, and the music’s playing, she knows what’s up,” Joe said. “I can feel it. She says, ‘OK, let’s go.’”
Sunny takes her place in the stands, camera at the ready, as her husband prepares with Annie.
“This is a great cowboy right here. 80 years young, riding a nice horse called Annie,” the announcer says over the loud speaker.
“Smokin’ Joe, are you ready, cowboy," he asks.
There’s a quick nod and they’re off.
The pair gallop around the arena, clearing jumps and completing obstacles while the crowd cheers them on.
Then, they approach Annie’s toughest task.
“Now, we all know Annie has a water box problem,” the announcer says to the crowd as Smokin’ Joe and Annie make their approach.
There’s minimal communication between Joe and Annie. With a couple clicks of the tongue and a few words of encouragement, Annie crosses the water box.
“Very nice,” the announcer praises. “That’s good work cowboy! Excellent!”
Sunny watches from the crowd, smiling.
Smokin' Joe and Annie finish the race. The cowboy is huffing and puffing, visibly more tired than his horse, but he's pleased.
"Good job, Annie," he says. "It's treat time!"
There’s an old cowboy saying that goes something like “If you climb in the saddle, be ready for the ride.”
There is no way Sunny could’ve predicted all those years ago that the man in the photo standing in front of the iron-worked team of horses would eventually turn into Smokin’ Joe Holloway, her real life cowboy.
Their ride has been long, even rough at times, but it continues for the three of them—Sunny, Smokin’ Joe and Annie.