The Role of the Pony Horse on a Racetrack

The Role of the Pony Horse on a Racetrack

Images of Rich Strike savaging the horse ponying him to the winner’s circle (and biting the outrider) have raised a lot of questions in the media. Many people questioned the purpose of the lead pony and the outrider. After all, one person wrote, the jockey just completed the race. Couldn’t he ride the horse to where they needed to go?

The answer is, not always. A riled up three year old colt (like Rich Strike), who is full of adrenalin and testosterone, is not always easy to handle, both before the race, on the way to the starting gate, and after the race, when they are still feeling competitive. The last thing racing organizers want is for a horse to throw his jockey and go rogue, especially at the Derby when almost every horse out there is worth a whole lot of money. While some people, including the president of PETA, are calling for the outrider, Greg Blasi, to be fired, Rich Strike’s trainer, Eric Reed, says he’s grateful.

“The outrider’s job at the end of the race is to help get the leading horse slowed down, and take him around and let him do the interviews. Well, Richie, he was in ‘killer mode,’ he was gonna outrun every horse on the track. He had not had a horse, after the finish line, come over to him. So when he saw that pony coming his way, he thought he had another horse to beat and he was trying to run by it.

“The man did his job. He reached out and grabbed hold of the horse and it made the horse mad. He didn’t know that he was trying to help him, he thought he was supposed to outrun that horse, and he bit the guy’s leg terribly. He bit his arm, a couple really bad bites.

“The horse is not a mean horse, he just was in race mode and he didn’t understand why they were grabbing him to slow him down.

“That man saved my horse from injury, because had he got up in the air and lost my rider, he could have gotten loose.I’m sorry for the injuries he sustained.”

eric reed, trainer

So Why Have Lead Ponies?

Outriders and lead ponies are there to keep the order, act as security blankets, get the horses to the starting gate in a timely manner and catch loose horses. They don’t just help during races, but work the track during all the training sessions. This means by the time a race like the Derby happens, the racehorses are often quite bonded to their lead ponies, which can help keep them calm and relaxed before and after the races. When going to the starting gate in front of huge crowds, keeping the racehorses calm is essential because a horse that gets too overexcited can use up too much energy before they even start. My ex-racehorse, Freedom, was a horse who didn’t perform as well as expected in races because he got so worked up.

Lava Man is one of the most famous pony horses at Churchill Downs. He’s known as the “Coach” at the track because he’s so good at teaching young horses the ropes. Shown here with Hot Rod Charlie.

When a horse gets loose, such as when Bodexpress acted up in the starting gate at the Preakness, the outriders and lead ponies are responsible for catching the loose horses.

Are they Ponies?

Calling the outriders’ horses ponies is somewhat misleading because they are not actually ponies (horses that are smaller than 14.2 hands). In fact, one of the most famous pony horses at Churchill Downs is Harley the Magnificent, a 17.2 hand American Sugarbush Draft Horse. The name comes from the term “ponying” which means leading one horse from another. Pony horses are all different breeds: ex-racehorses, quarter horses, and draft horses are most commonly seen. What they have in common is good temperament. A pony horse needs to be calm and steady, instilling confidence in the horses on the way to and from the starting gate.

A good lead pony tolerates horses in their personal space and puts up with bumps and fractious behavior. Many pony horses will use their bulk to contain a fractious racehorse without becoming aggressive. Outriders typically use western tack as the saddle is more secure and the western bits are designed for a light touch. Sometimes an outrider needs to drop the reins altogether and the pony must respond to subtle cues from the rider’s seat and legs.

Greg Blasi, at the heart of the Rich Strike controversy has worked at Churchill Downs for 20 years and has been instrumental in catching hundreds of horses, as well as leading them safely.

Here are some of the other lead ponies from Churchill Downs. You’ll also notice Smokey, who was Bob Baffert’s pony horse and travel companion for American Pharaoh. Most pony horses are quite sought after when they leave the track — Smokey was sold for $80,000 to benefit Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Home.

An American Thing

Interestingly, lead ponies are unique to American racecourses. In Europe, horses are escorted. I’ve seen several theories about the different approach. In Europe only certain races have parades before the start.

There are several theories about why only the US uses ponies.

First, the US started using starting gates much earlier than Europe and the UK, which had running starts. Without lead ponies, it can be difficult to get all the horses into the gate quickly. Keeping the process moving along means that the starting crew spends less time loading horses which enables racecourses to put more races on the card.

Another theory is that since American racehorses are stabled at the track, the horses aren’t used to being ridden on their own. In Europe and the UK, horses are stabled in trainers’ yards and then hacked to “gallops” in groups. For those horses, race day is pretty much par for the course.

Some reports say that when European jockeys come to the US they’ve commented on how much calmer horses stay when they have a pony horse with them. After all, everyone needs a friend.

6 thoughts on “The Role of the Pony Horse on a Racetrack

  1. I KNEW in my bones that some bleeding heart would bitch about the rider leading Rich Strike punching Rich Strike. . I just knew it. People who don’t know diddly squat about horses always think it’s the human being cruel. they didn’t mention anything about Rich Strike getting the message and ceasing his savaging. They don’t understand that a TB colt, three years old, full of andrenaline and testosterone, is going to be hard to handle at times. They don’t want to hear that a horse of any size can hurt, even kill, a human. They don’t understand that an 1100 horse is far stronger than any human. I know a woman who lost an arm to a stallion who grabbed her by the upper arm and literally tore it off.
    The bleeding hearts think horses-and zoo animals, are like what they see in Disney animations.

    When I was 16, I got a job walking hots at the Detroit Race Course. Back then, TBs were taught three things: break from the gate, turn left, change leads. Ground manners weren’t considered important. I was walking a colt cool in the shedrow and passed one stall whose occupant nailed me twice as I passed. Third time around, I was ready for him-he came for my arm again and I punched him right in the nose. Oh my! Fourth time around, he was way at the back of the stall and didn’t even think of biting me ever again.

    I am so grateful Reed defended the outrider.

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