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Pony Horses: 5 Reasons Racehorses Use a Lead Horse

Last updated: October 11, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

In the vibrant world of horse racing, a lesser-known yet vital player takes center stage: the lead horse. Often spotted beside a racehorse, these equine guides play a crucial role in ensuring that their partners are calm, oriented, and ready for the race ahead.

To truly appreciate horse racing, it’s essential to grasp its finer details. Understanding the role of the lead horse not only deepens one’s appreciation for the sport but also reveals the teamwork and strategy behind every thunderous gallop and a thrilling finish.

But what is it about the lead horse that makes them so indispensable to racehorses? And why has this practice persisted for so long in the world of racing? Buckle up as we gallop through the world of pony horses, unraveling the mysteries that make them the unsung heroes of the racetrack.

Origins and Evolution of Using Pony Horses in Racing

In the early days of horse racing, managing a racehorse’s energy and temperament was crucial. Handlers realized that racehorses, known for their high spirits and energy, often benefited from a steadying presence.

It wasn’t long before the role of the “pony horse” was introduced. These horses, typically older and more experienced, were tasked with guiding, calming, and accompanying racehorses to the starting gates. Over time, their role expanded, becoming an integral part of pre-race rituals, ensuring racehorses were in the best mindset to compete.

While the basic concept remains unchanged, modern practices have seen some evolution. Today, pony horses are chosen not only for their calm demeanor but also for their ability to bond with racehorses, creating a sense of companionship and security.

Picture of a small jockey riding a racehorse.

Influence of Tradition on Modern Horse Racing Practices

Tradition holds a strong sway in the world of horse racing. Even as technology advances and training methods evolve, many practices rooted in history persist.

The reliance on pony horses showcases this blend of history and function. Their role is not just about utility; it’s a nod to the rich tapestry of horse racing’s storied past. By keeping pony horses at the heart of the race day experience, the industry pays homage to its roots.

Balancing Old and New

Modern horse racing doesn’t shy away from innovation. From advanced training techniques to cutting-edge veterinary care, the sport continually evolves. Yet, traditions like the use of pony horses remind us that respect for the past and enthusiasm for the future can coexist, making horse racing a unique blend of time-honored practices and contemporary approaches.

Definition and Characteristics of a Typical Lead Horse

A lead horse, commonly referred to as a “pony horse,” serves as a guiding and calming presence in the fast-paced world of horse racing. Unlike their racehorse counterparts, lead horses aren’t there for the thrill of the race but to ensure everything proceeds smoothly and safely.

Calm and Steady
The main characteristic of a lead horse is its calm and steady demeanor. They must be unflappable amidst the cacophony of cheering crowds, racing hooves, and the general commotion of race day.

Experienced and Trustworthy
Typically, lead horses are older and have had racing or other extensive training experiences, making them familiar with the racetrack environment. This experience translates into trustworthiness, a trait that’s vital when guiding high-strung racehorses.

How They Differ from the Racehorses They Accompany

Racehorses are bred and trained for speed, agility, and endurance. Their primary goal is to cross the finish line first, and every aspect of their being is tuned to this purpose.

Temperament Differences
While racehorses are high-spirited and often excitable, lead horses are the opposite. They’re selected for their calm, composed nature, making them the perfect companions to balance out a racehorse’s fiery energy.

Physical Conditioning
Racehorses undergo rigorous training to enhance their speed and stamina. In contrast, while lead horses are certainly fit, their training focuses more on obedience and adaptability than on raw speed.

Lifespan on the Track
Racehorses often have shorter racing careers, retiring after a few years to ensure they’re not pushed beyond their physical limits. Lead horses, on the other hand, can serve in their guiding role for many years, their wisdom and experience growing with each race season.

Picture of a goat near a horse,
By Nicholas Hartmann – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Pony horses and companion horses aren’t the same.

A lot of people use the terms pony horse and companion horse interchangeably, and that’s okay. But technically, a companion horse, or companion animal, is an animal kept with a racehorse to keep the horse calm.

The companion horse differs from a pony horse in that a companion horse will stay with one particular horse most of the time. It’s not uncommon for a companion horse to work double duty as a pony horse.

Pony horses are ridden with a western saddle.

A western seat allows a rider more maneuverability and stability while on the companion horse. While riding a pony horse, a rider will need to perform tasks more similar to a western horseback rider than a racer or jumper.

Picture of our racehorse Mindy with her jockey

5 Reasons Racehorses Use a Lead Horse

In the exhilarating realm of horse racing, every detail matters, down to the seemingly secondary characters on the track. While racehorses grab the spotlight, their unsung companions, the lead horses, play an indispensable role behind the scenes. Dive in as we explore the top five reasons why pony horses are an integral part of every racehorse’s journey.

Calming Influence

Racehorses’ High-Strung Nature and the Calming Effect of a Companion
Racehorses are naturally high-strung, with their finely-tuned senses amplifying the excitement of race day. A lead horse, with its calming presence, acts like a trusted friend, reassuring the racehorse and reducing anxiety.

Studies and Observations on Equine Behavior in Group Settings
Research on equine behavior has consistently shown that horses are herd animals, drawing comfort from being in a group. In group settings, they exhibit decreased stress levels and increased cooperative behaviors.

Anecdotes from Trainers and Jockeys
Many trainers and jockeys swear by the benefits of a lead horse. Tales abound of restless racehorses instantly calming down once paired with their trusted lead horse, demonstrating the profound bond these horses can share.

Safety on the Track

Managing Unpredictable Behavior of Racehorses
Racehorses, with their fiery temperaments, can sometimes be unpredictable. Lead horses act as stabilizers, preventing sudden dashes or jumpy behaviors and ensuring that racehorses stay on track.

Guiding Racehorses in High-Crowd Situations
With booming speakers, cheering fans, and the hustle and bustle of race day, the racetrack can be overwhelming. Lead horses help navigate these distractions, ensuring that racehorses remain focused and undeterred.

Preventing Accidents and Injuries
By controlling the racehorse’s path and pace, lead horses play a crucial role in preventing mishaps. Their guidance ensures that racehorses don’t collide with each other or any obstacles, safeguarding against potential injuries.

Guided Warm-Up

Importance of a Proper Warm-Up Before a Race
Just as athletes stretch and warm up before an event, racehorses need to prep their muscles. A proper warm-up enhances performance and reduces injury risks.

How a Lead Horse Facilitates Structured Warm-Ups
Lead horses help set a consistent pace during warm-ups, ensuring that racehorses neither overexert nor under-prepare. They guide the racehorse through stretches and trotting routines, priming them for the race ahead.

Impact on Racehorse Performance
A well-warmed-up racehorse can tap into its full potential, showing better stamina, agility, and speed. The guiding role of the lead horse, therefore, directly impacts the racehorse’s overall performance.

Training and Familiarization

Young and Inexperienced Racehorses Benefitting from a Mentor
Every young racehorse starts as a novice, unfamiliar with the racecourse’s demands. Lead horses act as mentors, providing reassurance and guidance to these rookies, ensuring they learn the ropes safely.

Acclimatization to the Sights and Sounds of the Racecourse
The racetrack’s sensory overload can be daunting. By having a seasoned lead horse by their side, young racehorses become accustomed to the environment faster, leading to better focus during races.

Role of Lead Horses in Rehearsal Runs
In training sessions, lead horses accompany racehorses during rehearsal runs. They set the pace, guide the path, and help simulate actual race conditions, preparing the racehorse for the real deal.

Post-Race Cool Down

Importance of Gradual Cool Down After a Race
After the adrenaline rush of a race, it’s vital for racehorses to cool down gradually, allowing their heart rates to return to normal and preventing muscle stiffness.

How Lead Horses Aid in Managing Post-Race Stress
Post-race racehorses might still be high on energy and excitement. Lead horses, with their calming influence, help in grounding the racehorse, ensuring a smooth transition from race mode to rest mode.

Impact on Racehorse Health and Longevity
A proper cool-down routine, facilitated by lead horses, ensures the racehorse’s well-being. This not only helps in immediate recovery but also contributes to the racehorse’s long-term health and career longevity.

thoroughbred colt edited

Pony Horse Breeds

Retired racehorses are the best pony horses.

The two most common breeds used as pony horses on race tracks are quarter horses and thoroughbreds. These breeds may be the most popular because they have a racing background. Pony horse owners and trainers like to use retired racehorses that are geldings as companion horses.

Geldings are calmer than stallions and mares. The trainers and companion horse riders have spent time around the former racehorses and are familiar with their temperament. (If you’re interested in the best horse breeds suited to various disciplines, I wrote an article listing all my top picks.)

Quarterhorses are good pony horses.

Quarter horses have a level head, most have excellent conformation, and want to please their owner/rider. Quarterhorses are athletic and quick. These traits are ideal for a pony horse. All horses are individuals, and thoroughbreds are no different.

Trainers often find thoroughbred geldings that transition into perfect pony horses. As a whole, the thoroughbred breed is not as calm or sound as the quarter-horse breed. Draft crosses make good pony horses.

These horses are known for two things: their large size and their calm demeanor; both attributes are helpful when ponying other horses. Draft crosses are used at tracks and perform well. The only concern is their quickness to run after a breakaway horse, but the right cross can cure that problem.

Grade horses are also frequently used as companion horses. Of course, it depends on the different mix of breeds of the grade horse, but often, a grade horse makes an excellent pony horse.

Picture of  our pony horse we use during training.
Paint mare we use as a Pony horse during training.

The Bond Between Racehorses and Pony Horses

It’s not just about function but also friendship. There are countless tales of racehorses and lead horses forming inseparable bonds. Take the story of a famous racehorse that, despite its fierce demeanor, would only calm down when its trusted lead horse was near or the tale of a retired racehorse that whinnied in distress until reunited with its lifelong lead horse companion.

Often, these pairs aren’t just passing partnerships but relationships that span years. A consistent lead horse provides stability and familiarity to a racehorse, especially amidst the chaos of races and transfers. Conversely, the lead horse benefits from the bond, too, enjoying a purposeful life alongside its spirited counterpart.

The rider and handler are crucial in nurturing the relationship between a racehorse and its lead horse. They ensure that both horses are comfortable with each other, scheduling joint training sessions and even allocating shared resting spaces. Their understanding of both horses’ temperaments and needs is the glue that cements this incredible bond.

Some great racehorses had companion animals.

Seabiscuit had companion animals.

Horses are herd animals and enjoy the companionship of animals. Seabiscuit is famously housed with a group of animals. Kentucky Derby winners Unbridled and Smarty Jones had companion horses.

Vintage picture of Seabiscuit and his owner

Butterscotch was both a companion and a pony horse.

Smarty Jones’ companion Butterscotch filled two roles, babysitter and pony horse for him. Smarty Jones won the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and placed in the Belmont Stakes, with Butterscotch leading him to each race’s starting gates.

The two horses bonded, and Smarty and Butterscotch almost won the triple crown.

American Pharoah had a companion horse.

American Pharoah had a companion horse, a 6-year-old gelding named Smokey. Smokey helped calm American Pharoah’s nerves enough for him to win the Triple Crown.

Thoroughbred horses are high, strung animals. They are removed from their natural state and placed into stalls, leading to boredom and stress.

Having a companion animal helps to fill a void in their lives. A happy or content horse can endure the rigors of racing better than a depressed horse. Companion animals have their place in horse racing.

Interesting info:

  • Europeans, as well as some other countries, don’t use pony horses in horseracing.
  • Pony riders are required to wear protective helmets and vests while riding on a track.

Here’s a YouTube video about racehorse companions.


In the grand spectacle of horse racing, it’s easy to focus solely on the racehorses as they thunder down the track. However, behind every successful racehorse is a lead horse, diligently guiding, calming, and supporting. From ensuring safety and performance enhancements to forging deep emotional bonds, these lead horses are truly the backbone of the racing world.

Next time you’re at the racetrack or tuning in from home, take a moment to acknowledge the quiet contributors. The lead horses might not bask in the limelight, but their impact is undeniable. Let’s raise a toast to these unsung heroes who, in their unique way, make every race possible and every victory sweeter.

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Miles Henry