A (Not So Wild) Ride in a Jockey’s Stirrups
My favorite time of day at any racetrack has always been training hours. I've found myself in awe, if not plain envious, of the exercise riders and jockeys who pilot Thoroughbreds with apparent ease and, it would seem, nerves of steel. I have always suspected as a rider myself that the men and women galloping or racing Thoroughbreds make their jobs look easier than they are, inviting the critique of armchair jockeys everywhere.
After talking to Chris McCarron for our story on jockey rehabilitation after injuries I got the idea to try my hand at galloping a racehorse. I've been aboard hunter/jumpers and event horses since I was seven, so I thought I had the skills to stay on, and maybe discover a little bit of natural talent.
As I hobble around my house clutching the aspirin bottle a few days later, I must say I was half wrong, and that I still don't know how jockeys do it. I stayed on, but I am most likely not cut out for the job.
One of the things I hadn't really calculated is how difficult it is just to stay perched up there, much less stay still. The forward momentum of an accelerating horse pushes you backwards, toward the saddle. With the stirrup on the very end of your inwardly-turned foot, your entire means of balance is your calves and heels, which of course start moving around with the horse. For yoga practitioners, it's basically the chair pose, on your heels, with your toes in and arms down. The taller you are, the more difficult it is to keep your body low behind the horse's neck, and if you manage to do it, you have to hope that neck doesn't come flying back at your nose if the horse becomes upset. I'm honestly not sure which set of muscles was more upset by my attempt to maintain this balance—back, calves, arms, abs, or heels.
Professionals are of course, fitter than I am, so I imagine all of this isn't so overwhelming for them. Even for jockeys who ride daily though, the challenge of adjusting to so many different horses probably remains difficult. In the 20 minutes or so I was aboard my trusty steed Gus, I learned that he didn't mind if you took a close hold on the reins, he was a big fan of the pony horse, and today he was feeling lazy. That was it. While that information is better than nothing, it definitely wouldn't be enough for me to give him an optimum ride at pretty much any gait. I don't know much yet about what types of encouragement he does or doesn't respond to or how he'd like me to balance out that right-swinging canter stride. With the exception of some stakes horses, jockeys haven't necessarily been on their afternoon mounts in the morning, so they have even less time than I did to learn first-hand what flies and what doesn't. I can understand much better now why I (and the furious handicappers shredding tickets around me) sometimes see a jockey try something in the stretch that just doesn't work.
Thanks to Remi Bellocq and Chris McCarron of the North American Racing Academy for an unforgettable lesson, as well as Gus, who graciously put up with my huffing and puffing.