What Is a Companion Pony?

For Smarty Jones, an animal named Butterscotch is both friend and foal.

Butterscotch on the side

Tomorrow, Smarty Jones will attempt to complete the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont Stakes, but not without the help of Scotch with a Twist, better known as Butterscotch. Butterscotch has been called Smarty Jones’ “companion pony.” What is a companion pony, and what do they do?

Horses are not loners by nature, so it’s common practice for thoroughbreds to keep a horse known as a companion pony for friendship and support. The friends that accompany racehorses both on the road and at home are not limited to horses, however—dogs, sheep, goats, and even chickens have served as companions. Famed champion Seabiscuit relied on a whole covey of kindly animals: a horse named Pumpkin, a dog named Pocatell, and a spider monkey named Jo-Jo. The champion Unbridled, who won the 1990 Kentucky Derby, enjoyed companionship from his equine friend Mustard.

Like many companion ponies, Butterscotch doubles as a lead pony for his thoroughbred. The primary task of a lead pony, also known as a stable pony, is to help a racehorse with its training, both in practice and on the day of a race. During practice, the lead pony and its rider often physically restrain a thoroughbred until it breaks off, or moves into full speed. In the first part of the workout, a leather strap attached to the lead pony is looped through the thoroughbred’s bridle; when the thoroughbred should kick into high gear, the pony rider detaches the strap. Lead ponies also serve as a sort of safety net—if something happens to the racehorse on the track during practice, the pony, which the thoroughbred respects and trusts, can inch in close, offering reassurance while the racehorse is in a vulnerable state. If a thoroughbred runs off the course, the lead pony is the one that bounds out after him.

On the day of a race, the lead pony usually accompanies its thoroughbred in what’s called the post parade—a short walk in front of the grandstand, followed by a brief warm-up before the start of the race. The excitement can agitate the horse, so to keep it in check, a leather strap once again connects the lead pony to the thoroughbred’s bridle.

Because the thoroughbred may need to be restrained, the rider on the lead pony may tighten the reins, causing the two horses’ heads to come together, which can create the illusion that the thoroughbred is nervously leaning into the lead pony. Because of their myriad duties, lead ponies must have even temperaments. They need to stay calm on a racetrack, and remain unfazed by noise and excitement surrounding them. They must also be strong and disciplined.

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Explainer thanks Gary Falter of Jockey Club Information Systems; Margi Stickney, director of education at Kentucky Horse Park; and Carl Nafzger, trainer of the 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled.