Lead Ponies Thriving in ‘Retirement’

Diana Dobson
7 November 2018
They’re some of the busiest and possibly fittest horses in the racing industry but never need  to race any more.
Some would say lead ponies have the best job in the business – they get to teach and mentor all the up-and-comers, enjoy the daily antics of a racing stable and have plenty of variety in their world.
They still play a valuable role in a racing stable, ensuring youngsters starting out in the racing game get the best possible start.
 
Ballymore Stables in Matamata have two lead ponies – Frosty, a former Hong Kong galloper, and Milo, who may not have been a star on the track but has shown his versatility as a clerk of the course horse, as well as in the show ring.
Pam Gerard, who trains in partnership with Mike Moroney, says the two horses complement each other well.
 
Frosty began his race career in Australia, where he had one start for one win – impressively by 11 lengths – but was then sent to Hong Kong. “He didn’t want a bar of it,” says Pam. “. Hong Kong just doesn’t suit them all. He is a bit of a funny fella and can have a temper on him at times, but he keeps the young ones in tow.”
He’s a smart looking horse and has been with the stable a good year-and-a-half now and Pam says he seems to enjoy it. “He loves the lead pony stuff and he gets plenty of carrots and treats. The things he isn’t good at, Milo is.”
 
Milo has had a varied career. Back in his early days he was sent to Pam to break in. “I was training in my own right then. He was a bit of a character. He used to take a bit to load into the barrier . . . the boys almost had to lift him in, and the same for the float where he would just stand quietly and not move. He is quirky but cool.”
As a race horse, he had a win and was potentially a very good jumper but after a single start broke down and was retired.
 
While initially sent to be with the clerk of the course, they quickly figured he was too good for that and he started a very successful showing career.
When he tired of the show circuit he returned to the racing industry to do Wingatui and Central Otago meetings with the clerk of the course for a decade and that’s when he came back to Pam.
“He seems very happy – he gets brushed and well looked after and fed twice a day. These lead ponies do a fair amount of work so need to be well looked after,” she says.
 
Some days he goes to the races, while others are spent at the stables. “Horses love companions and racing is quite a highly-strung environment for them. Having that older calmer horse around who knows the routines and just how it all works is invaluable.”
It takes a special horse to be a lead pony. “The younger ones settle and can get on with it. It is a lot easier for the babies to follow an older horse around to get the gist of what they are meant to be doing. It is a good calming influence.”
 
Race day can be another rather fraught affair, but a lead pony on the truck often just takes the edge off things.
Both Frosty and Milo know what to do and have strong ideas of what they deserve too. “Frosty loves a carrot at the end of the mornings when he gets his saddle off and heads straight to the tack room where the bucket of carrots is waiting.”
Pam says Milo has “been there and seen it all”. “He can deal with most things but his biggest party trick some days is playing ‘catch me’.” Frosty is the bossier of the two while Milo tends to turn a bit of a blind eye to things.
 
 “It is a personal preference whether to have lead ponies or not – some just don’t have the facilities. I am a big believer in them – you see really good results with some of the young ones with them.”
It can also be the difference between a youngster pursuing a career or not. “Sometimes this is the way of getting difficult horses going who may have otherwise just gone by the wayside or be put into the too hard basket in some stables. We have managed to inherit quite a few of those and got them up and going successfully.”
The key to lead ponies is patience, quietness and a good temperament. “They have to put up with a lot. Some days they do a hell of a lot of work – up to 10 horses in a morning leading or teaching them to swim. They are very fit!”
 
It’s a sentiment reiterated by Te Akau Racing trainer Jamie Richards who reckons his lead pony Zane would be the fittest horse in Matamata. Zane, who was bred by company principal Dave Ellis, was trialled but never got to the races.
 
“He’s pretty laid back and not much fazes him,” says Jamie. “He is a very relaxed sort of horse that we can teach people to ride on as well as looking after and educating the babies. He just plods though, with no interest in stepping it up.”
He is known to be “firm but fair” with the young horses and is a favourite with the staff too who have taken him hunting as well.
“Dave [Ellis] is a big buyer at the yearling sales, so we have a lot of young horses coming through. We have a lot of valuable stock here and are always trying to keep things safe for both the horses and staff. Having a good steady old horse there does help a lot,” says Jamie.
 
The ponies work year round six days a week. “Zane knows his job well. If we have one racing at Woodville, he may go for a ride to keep them company. Most of the time he is a calming influence but he’s not so keen on standing still – especially in the truck.”
Despite that he’s a valuable part of the Te Akau team and is loving his ‘retirement’.

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