Kentucky Derby Horses Have Their Own Companion Ponies to Help Calm Them Down

Around 6:50 p.m. on May 1 the starting gates at Churchill Downs will fly open and 20 thoroughbred horses will tear down the track.

And for two minutes the hopes of the nation, as well as the reigns, will be in the jockeys' hands.

The Kentucky Derby is the biggest event in American horse racing, and this year it is expected to draw crowds of up to 48,000, despite the pandemic.

But, while all eyes are firmly fixed on the 20 thoroughbreds taking part, there are other horses present on the day, and these unsung heroes play a vital role.

They are called companion ponies, and each racehorse will walk to the track with one by their side.

Racehorse trainer James Eustace explains to Newsweek that this is "traditional in America" and that "most horses are ponied to the start."

He added that while the practice is a "rare occurrence in European racing" it is done because "any horse that is slightly temperamental or nervous might be calmer with a pony."

In a sport where a fraction of a second makes all the difference, trainers want to ensure their horse is as confident as possible before the bell rings.

A companion pony is chosen specific to each horses needs, this is because, as Eustace puts it: "They are all different, they're like children.

"But thoroughbred racehorses are bred to be finely tuned, so rather like some athletes, or perhaps golfers is a better example, temperament is everything."

Hot rod charlie lava man
Hot Rod Charlie is escorted by retired racehorse Lava Man during a training session at Churchill Downs. At the Kentucky Derby each racehorse will have a companion pony at their side before the race begins. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The backgrounds of these companion ponies differ greatly.

For example, when Hot Rod Charlie practiced at Churchill Downs earlier this week, he was escorted by $5 million earner Lava Man, who is a 20-year-old retired race horse.

However, some might instead be accompanied by a trail pony in the off season.

Eustace goes on to reveal that ex racehorses are not always a good choice for the role.

He says: "Some retired racehorses just find it too exciting; they can't settle down.

"The important thing with a pony or hack is that they're very quiet and instill calm into the racehorse that isn't necessarily calm."

But is it always the same companion pony leading a horse? Eustace says: "Not necessarily, but often.

"Day to day there are professional pony boys and girls who run a business ponying horses to the start.

"They get clients who are certain trainers, but most trainers will have a pony of their own, but they can't do everything.

"If they are busy they might have more than one pony."