A (Not So Wild) Ride in a Jockey’s Stirrups

by | 04.18.2013 | 11:40am

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.




  • Debbie Rhodes

    Wow! I am impressed thank you for this story.

  • Stephanie

    great story Natalie, I think I would have stayed on the practice horse!

  • rachel

    Thanks Natalie! That was fun!

  • Jockeys are a tough & brave bunch…Great insight…ty…

  • G. Rarick

    I rode my first horse, a cart horse named Spanky, when I was 30, got on my first thoroughbred at 38, lost 50 pounds and rode my first race under rules when I was 40. It is far more difficult than most people realize. Opens up a whole new meaning for mind over matter.

    • Larry Ensor

      My hats off to you. Especially losing 50 lbs. I grew up riding for the most part and from a show, Steeplechase family But got tied of my very accomplished show mom always yelling “heels down” and all the others things that make a good equitation rider. I just wanted to “race ride” my pony. So I hung of my tack for the most part for 30+ years on an everyday bases. When I moved back to the farm at 48 I started riding again everyday.

      When the financial melt down hit the business I started breaking/starting our home breds and clients. Getting on 10+ a day. Got my jump trainers license and shortly there after my jump jock’s. Rode my first jump race at 52. Being a an avid skier and mountain climber my whole life has kept me reasonably fit. The stress of having a large farm mortgage in tough economic times makes it easy to keep the weight off.

      If a you want to try something just do it. I’m too old to be really good but I won’t go to my grave regretting I didn’t give it a try. Plus IMO it gives me a much better perspective when it comes to training and communicating with my fellow riders.

      After my first race I owed a few jockeys an apology for my criticism.

      • Abby Fuller

        and my hats off to all 3 of you;horse people are GAME!! Good job Natalie,and G.R. wow quite an accomplishment,! Larry you are quite inspirational( and yah prob. a little crazy too-lol) but having done both it would be great if every jockey could take a turn at training too so they would also have that broader perspective! None of those jobs are easy…IMO ; > Abby F.

        • Larry Ensor

          Abby, a most special compliment. I remember you and Mom’s Command very well. Saw all of your “Triple” races. I met your father a number of times and we were introduced. I can only image how special it must have been for the both of you. Sadly my father died before I got back in the saddle and he loved Timber racing. He was a good athlete in school but not much rider from what my mother told me. Though he was “game”. I have always been told how much I look like him but luckily I took after my mother when it comes to riding.

          I always think about “The Dancer” this time of year. I guess because it was the first horse I really rooted for as a kid of 12 being from Maryland. I had seen his sire “The Grey Ghost” a few years before and it made quite an impression. Still does when I drive by Sagamore. As far as I am concerned The Dancer won fair and square.

          If you are ever in the area, Unionville PA look me up GumTreeStables.com. We have some nice horses to get on and it would be a pleasure to show you around the neighborhood

          It’s interesting how many Jump jockey have turned out to be good trainers. Sid Waters and Barclay Tagg off the top of my head.
          I am assuming this is the “real” A-F. If not the offer is still open.

  • Lou Baranello, Former Steward

    Ms. Voss, After watching the video about “A Not So Wild Ride In A Jockeys Stirrups”, I am going to break my habit of not offering unsolicited advice. Any exercise rider or race rider that positions himself or herself astride a horse using short stirrups of equal or near equal length is seriously limiting their ability to be an effective rider. Why do I make such a rash statement? When you are out some morning or at the races, take the time to observe riders very closely. Without exception, they all have the same seat on a horse, that being one where their heels are higher than their toes, their knees are too far forward and each has a hump in their back. Also it is difficult to maintain contact with with your stirrups when the heels are higher than the toes. I am aware that Chris McCarron and others are teaching young people to be riders and I can assure you that each teacher will disagree with what I have stated. Ask some rider that you respect WHY they position their feet with heels up and toes down. After hearing an answer you might decide for yourself. Before you do, try pulling a fence post closer to your body while standing on your toes.

    • Larry Ensor

      Lou, I enjoy reading you comments. I very much respect the fact you use your real name, I assume, and give back ground information that qualifies your comments. No disrespect but I think you should stick with what you really know. I don’t know if you have an equitation back ground or just a student of. From what I read I would tend to think the latter. Having grown up in the “saddle” my mother and step father being top show riders turned flat trainers I am very well verse in heels down, leg position, contact etc most of which is thrown out when it comes to exercising racehorses and or riding races. I don’t totally disagree with what you are saying but again no disrespect it comes off as a laymen’s understanding. I understand your “fence post” analogy but it just doesn’t quite apply. I don’t know how much time you have spent watching race riding/galloping in Europe or on the back of a racehorse but I have and feel the style of riding over there as a group is better and more effective. A style that IMO has/is being adapted on this side of the pond. But in perspective it does lend itself to what you are saying. Ms. Voss looks to be on the tall side and as Remi pointed out she would not be riding that short anyway. Depending on the rider/jocks stature and build each is going “ride” a bit differently. Jockeys owe a lot to the talented exercise jocks. A dieing breed. The best IMO come from backgrounds like Ms. Voss. Remi makes a good point that their job is a bit tougher in some respects. But IMO it is far more then just “holding” a horse. It’s that, keeping them in hand and getting them to relax. All horses run it is the trainers and exercise jock’s job to teach them how to race. At least that’s the way I see and mentor/teach the people that ride for me prepping the youngsters at our farm.

      • G. Rarick

        Absolutely agree, Larry (and what an inspirational story!). Every rider finds their own technique, too, in the end; Our now retired top jock Dominique Boeuf used to have his toes pointed straight down, and I end up doing the same thing when I work at speed. Just happened naturally. But I much prefer the toe-in-iron style of Lemaire or Dettori to the toe-down approach. (And apologies to all of them for even mentioning me in the same paragrah – I was a horrible amateur rider with a long and illustrious carreer of 14 races, but it did serve as invaluable experience as a trainer.)

        • dbrown

          I’m 62 and gallop my own racehorses at my farm almost everyday. It keeps me fit and healthy. Nothing is more fun than breezing your own horse preparing for a race. I rode with Gina in Paris and I envy the facilities she has to train her horses.

          • Larry Ensor

            I hear you and when the day comes I can’t get on a horse will be the day I sell the farm and take up shuffle board.

        • Larry Ensor

          I am still impressed with you loosing 50lbs! Nobody must have recognized you. I only have to tack up at 165 for Timber races and my natural weight is around 170+. At 6’ I could never have been a flat jockey anyway. Never wanted to be. I have always admired the Steeplechase jocks. No disrespect to flat jocks. I’m just a “shamature” anyway. It takes a bit more to ride 3-4 miles at speed over as many as 20+ 3’+ jumps. Unlike hurdles in this country where the solid jump is 2’-6”. Timber you either go over or you go down. But there is some much going on a rider doesn’t think much about that. Just the other 10+ horses around you and getting away from a bad jumper in front of you. Or when you loose a stirrup and trying to get your foot back in before the next jump. When you’re on a good jumper and they take the perfect big jump the “hang” “float” time is quite an interesting feeling. Poetry in motion

          I have seen and admire the jocks you mentioned. I am still a fan of Lester P especially his Breeders’ Cup ride on Royal Academy. Had dinner with him a few times. Never picked up the tab and in those days it took me years to pay off my credit card.

  • Cindy

    Really great story! Hope it gets viewed by young people everywhere who have horse interests and wish to know more about the skills needed to be a good race rider. Can’t imagine the personal
    conditioning, learning to eat well for health and strength to be able to ride these awesome horses.

  • FastBernieB

    Great article and video. I’ve never been weight appropriate to ride a thoroughbred and can only imagine what a thrill it must be when a rider finally gets to ride in a race. The combination of skill and courage required to get a horse around the track in a race should never be overlooked.
    I thought the lesson on using the stick was bang on. Using the stick as a tool and giving the horse a chance to respond is something that the top riders do routinely. Using it as a weapon where some hapless plug who is regressing gets flogged mercilessly by a low end rider happens too often at the lower levels of the business. Stewards could be a lot more vigilant about this sort of abuse but seem to mostly ignore it.

Twitter Twitter
Paulick Report on Instagram