By Celia Purdey
Walk around the stalls at Flemington on race day and you might happen upon a sweet little scene: a 16-hand high, majestic racehorse standing next to a pint-sized, round Shetland pony. This is more than just a cute photo opportunity; companion animals have long been a crucial element in many a horse’s race preparation and training, and even the secret to some success. Horses are herd animals, preferring the company of other animals to solitude. They respond well to the proximity of animals and humans, generally reacting enthusiastically when they have someone nearby. There are many positives to horses having a companion animal.
Horses, especially those waiting to race, can be highly strung and a little nervous, not unlike a human before any competition. The presence of an animal in a horse’s stall allows them to be more relaxed and calm.
The practice of providing horses with a companion animal reaches back hundreds of years, particularly in association with working horses. The image of Dalmatian dogs clearing a path for the horses pulling the fire engines through the streets in pursuit of a fire is perhaps the most recognisable. The loyal dogs would run alongside the horses, defending the horses from dogs or other animals that may spook them.
Companion animals for racehorses can be traced as far back as the Godolphin Arabian (c. 1724-53) – one of the stallions that helped found the line of thoroughbred horses – which was very close to a cat called Grimalkin.
Cats as companion animals for horses are perhaps not so visible on race day now, with Shetland ponies and retired racehorses most often filling the role, but companion animals come in all shapes and sizes, including goats, sheep, dogs, cats, and even chickens and monkeys!
Perhaps the most famous example of the positive effects of a companion animal – or in this case, a whole entourage – is the story of American champion and symbol of hope through the Depression years, Seabiscuit.
A skittish and nervous animal as a result of mistreatment, Seabiscuit was at first written off as lazy. But when taken on by trainer Tom Smith, who was known for his unorthodox training methods, the horse was not only showered with love and affection from humans but was also introduced to his animal entourage – a cow pony called Pumpkin, a stray dog called Pocatell and Jojo the spider monkey. With these animals at his side, Seabiscuit eventually became comfortable and trusting. Whether they were responsible for his incredible success on the racetrack can’t be certain, but their presence in his career was, nonetheless, believed to be a major advantage.
Another tale of companionship is that of the 2003 Melbourne Cup third placegetter Jardine’s Lookout. The English stayer first came to notice in 2002 when he placed seventh in the Cup, won by Media Puzzle. Convinced he could do better the next year, his connections decided to bring the horse back to Australia. This time, Jardine’s Lookout was almost at risk of being outshone by his tiny travelling companion – crowd favourite Henry the Welsh pony.
Henry was such an instrumental tool in the stayer’s training and Melbourne Cup campaign, connections allegedly paid some $50,000 to have the pony flown to Australia. Described as ‘the odd couple’ by trainer Alan Jarvis, the pair attracted media attention even on their morning walks, when Jardine’s Lookout, more than 16 hands high to Henry’s 12, would stop to wait for his little mate when Henry lagged. The decision to bring Henry to Melbourne was crucial. Without him nearby, Jardine’s Lookout would fret. Instead, the stayer’s top-three placing in 2003 appeared to confirm that the investment in Henry’s airfare had paid off.
The tale of Toby and Bob
Closer to home, one of the most heartwarming friendships between pony and horse was that between the recently departed champion Might And Power and Toby, also known as Piccolo, a miniature horse. Residing together at Living Legends, the paddock companions had an inseparable bond. Andrew Clarke, Living Legends CEO remembers the pair here.
“Toby came to Living Legends to be a paddock mate for Might And Power, or as we called him, Bob. This was because Bob had unique dietary requirements and needed to be fed more than our other horses, and when we pair horses up we need to have them on similar diets.
Bob had a big personality which is common for horses by his sire Zabeel. While Toby is small in stature, he too has a big personality. We often joke that Toby thinks that he is by Zabeel and that he is a racehorse. Toby reminds me of a Jack Russell dog, as that breed tends to believe that they are actually big dogs. Bob and Toby hit it off from day one, and while Toby would regularly try to assert his dominance as the boss in the paddock, Bob would have none of that and quickly put Toby back in his place. Some of the best fun that we had with Bob and Toby was taking them out together, with the most memorable times being to The Park at Flemington Racecourse for the launch of the VRC’s Melbourne Cup Carnival.
Toby has shared a paddock with a few horses since Bob passed away. He was Tom Melbourne’s paddock mate when Tom first arrived. Toby also has to make regular visits to our ‘Mary Kay’ diet yard with daily exercise on the horse walker, as he is prone to weight gain and loves his tucker.
Toby continues to take every opportunity to live life to its fullest, taking the big-picture view of life with whichever horse he shares a paddock with, but for us, at Living Legends we will always think of him as the little horse with a big personality who was the mate of Might And Power, a big horse in so many ways, with the biggest personalities of all.”