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When we were recently at the track, a friend asked why racehorses were escorted by a pony horse. Her question made me wonder about the pony horse’s role in horseracing, so I researched.
Racehorses have another horse with them before the race to help them stay calm and as relaxed as possible before the race. Having a companion helps the racehorse focus on the race and not the crowd. The accompanying horse is called a pony horse and is a vital member of the horse racing community.
Pony horses come from various backgrounds and breeds and are ridden with different tack than a racehorse. Companion horses have a unique and essential job in the world of horseracing.
Reasons racehorses have a horse with them.
Pony horses accompany racehorses to the track, paddock, and starting gates in the United States. There are various reasons they are indispensable.
Pony Horses escort.
Before a race, the racehorses walk to the paddock alongside another horse, often called a pony horse. After a race, the horses are escorted back to the barns by the same horses.
Horses are herd animals. When you get a bunch of young fillies and colts together, they like to kick up their heels and play. Introducing some older geldings into this group of young horses calms these youngsters. (If you are interested in reading about horses’ socialization, check out this article.)
Pony horses help calm nervous racehorses.
But some horses are exceptionally high-strung and need a calmer presence next to them during the excitement of race day. On their way to the starting gates, horses are forced to walk in front of the grandstand loaded with noisy people and unfamiliar sounds; this experience is nerve-wracking for some horses.
A lead strap is held by the pony rider and attached to the racehorse bit. The lead is used to control the racehorse, and sometimes they encourage a horse to trot so it’s warmed up before the race.
Pony horses warm up a horse before its race.
Sometimes a horse will warm up on its own, but frequently a trainer will instruct a pony rider to hold on to the racehorse and gallop at a steady pace before leading him to the gate.
Companion horses prevent injuries of young horses in training. When horses are introduced to the morning training routines, they are commonly sent out with a pony horse.
Pony horses keep young horses in line.
The companion horses keep the youngsters in check until they settle down. Young horses are fit and anxious to run and play after spending much time in a stall.
Experienced lead ponies and their riders know when a young horse is getting nervous. When the young horse’s nerves start to strain, the pony horse moves closer to the young horse.
The closing of the distance between the horses provides comfort and protection. If the companion horse fails to pre-empt the tension and the racehorse darts away, it’s the pony horse’s duty to retrieve the runaway.
Attaching a young horse to a companion horse calms them and allows them to burn off some of their energy while under control. Together the horses gallop around the track in different directions and other times, will stand still and watch other horses work out.
Pony horses are used to train other horses.
Pony horses are also used for schooling young racehorses during morning training. Schooling may involve a race day rehearsal, going to the paddock, and then to the starting gate, just like in a real race absent the crowd.
The young horses continue to train with the pony horse until their trainer believes they are experienced enough to work independently and safely. Companion horses may work with eight or more horses each morning. On race day, a companion horse might lead out a horse for every race.
Characteristics of pony horses
Pony horses have a lot of responsibilities on the race track. And handling these responsibilities takes a special horse with specific characteristics.
Pony Horses have an even temperament.
The temperament of a pony horse is probably the most critical characteristic of a competent pony horse. Temperament is the general attitude of a horse.
A good companion horse should be calm, and enjoy working with other horses and people. He can’t be flighty or spook easily. But most importantly, a good pony horse must exude confidence.
A companion horse has to convey authority and strength to a frightened young horse and push back against a bully horse, not listening to its jockey. He can’t be afraid of bumping bodies when necessary. Generally, quarter horses have a good temperament for success as companion horses.
Pony horses are solidly built and hardy.
Companion horses are ridden hard and often. Their bodies have to be able to withstand the daily rigors of leading and chasing horses. You don’t want a weak pony horse. They are often called on to pull against a feisty horse or run down a breakaway. Good stable conformation in a horse is vital in a companion horse.
Pony horses are smart.
A good companion horse is smart and knows his job. He must be an able and willing learner. The best pony horses are instinctive and react quickly without hard cues from their rider.
Good instincts are critical to keeping a young horse calm and focused. If a horse detects nervous tension building, he can quell it before the horse bolts.
Pony horses are good athletes.
Pony horses are asked to perform a myriad of tasks. They may have to race down a track full speed after a racehorse that darted out during a training session, or they may have to push against a nervous horse to settle him down. A successful companion horse must be athletic.
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 with a list of 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 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 seen 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
Below is a YouTube video showing 2022 Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strikes biting a pony horse.
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I love animals! Especially horses, I’ve been around them most of my life but I am always learning more and enjoy sharing with others. I have bought, sold, and broke racehorse yearlings. I have raised some winning horses and had some that didn’t make it as racehorses, so we trained them in other disciplines.