Track or lead ponies are horses that offer support and comfort for racehorses as they travel to and from the racetrack. Often older than their charges, a track pony or lead pony offers guidance and support, allowing the racehorse to focus on their job rather than the sights and sounds of the racetrack. Horses are herd animals, so the pony’s presence has a calming effect. A fractious horse could injure itself or its rider and expend valuable energy prior to racing.
While lead ponies can come in a wide array of ages, sizes, and breeds, the most important factor is their temperament. Lead ponies need to remain composed even in front of large crowds and racetrack traffic. Some barns will employ off the track Thoroughbreds as their lead ponies as they have experience with the atmosphere of the track. Most famously, millionaires Perfect Drift and Lava Man found success in their second careers as lead ponies and led over Kentucky Derby winners California Chrome and I’ll Have Another respectively.
The title of lead pony comes from the term “ponying”, which refers to leading a horse while riding another. Lead ponies are owned by their human partners called outriders. Outriders are licensed employees of the racetrack that play a crucial role in maintaining safety and order on the racetrack. Like jockeys, outriders wear helmets and safety vests for protection but will also ride in western saddles for extra security. The outrider will lead racehorses with a strap looped through their bit rather than attached to their bridle, which allows the outrider to easily release them when the time is right.
Outriders and their ponies work both during morning training and in the afternoons on race days. In the mornings, they escort horses to and from their workouts. In certain circumstances, they may exercise a racehorse without a rider. In the afternoons, track ponies lead racehorses from the paddock to the starting gate. Depending on the trainer’s instructions, the lead pony may accompany the racehorse through their warm-up and part ways with them at the starting gate. When the race is over, an outrider and pony will sometimes reunite with the winner in order to guide them back to their connections. Working closely together in teams, outriders and their ponies will strategically place themselves to provide coverage throughout the track and remain vigilant for loose horses. When catching a loose horse, it helps to have a speedy Thoroughbred as your pony!
At the Stonestreet Training Center, our graduates are introduced to lead ponies early in their training. Our ponies shepherd each set of horses through their work, whether they are in the field or on our training track. Our graduates learn to relax in the presence of the lead pony and will take these lessons to the racetrack.
We have two lead ponies at our Training Center: O’Reilly and Tony. O’Reilly is a twelve-year-old buckskin, and Tony is an eight-year-old palomino. Both are Quarter Horse geldings that have been with us for several years. The geldings alternate their workdays and spend Sundays relaxing in their paddock and enjoying the Ocala sunshine. Both are cool customers, often standing untied between sets or while overseeing gate work. Over the course of their tenure, they have guided over 200 stakes winners through their training.
Lead ponies and their outrider partners are critical in ensuring the safety of all racing participants. The next time you visit the racetrack, give a pat or a peppermint your local lead pony!