Early May brings with it warm breezes across the gallop field at the Thoroughbred Center in Lexington, Ky. The grass has grown so long that North American Racing Academy executive director Remi Bellocq and the brightly-painted PVC pipes he's holding dissolve into a green haze as he marches across the expansive field.
Bellocq is setting the stage for the culmination of four months of his students' work as they have progressed from struggling to tie knots in thick rubber reins to controlling feisty Thoroughbreds through looping canter figure-eights accented by occasional gallops up the crest of the hill. But the students' final grades aren't determined by how far they've come—it's about performance.
All eight students passed a rigorous final fitness assessment consisting of a two-mile run in 20 minutes, 20 minutes on a stationary bike, two sets of 75 sit-ups in six minutes, two sets of 35 push-ups in four minutes, a 90-second wall sit, and 90 seconds of jump rope.
The riding assessment is more worrisome for most of them. Each of the eight students in the class will ride a course that takes them in figure eights across the field, changing gaits at pre-determined spots and requiring them to pass through the pairs of brightly-colored pipes. As with their midterms, the course is divided into segments—breaking gait or missing a location marker results in failure for that segment.
The grade on each test, combined with instructor approval, determines how many of the eight will go on to the next phase of training—track work.
It turns out the two-ride structure also tests the students' mental fitness, as several of them left Day 1 of exams less than satisfied. Erin Steinbeck and her mount, Jackson, maintained their pace well across the longer stretches of their figure eights but failed to balance back in time to hit their one of their marks on a tough turn. Melissa Myszka, a longtime rider of green horses, got a surprise from veteran Gus when the gelding impishly leaned his left shoulder toward the gallop field's exit and dropped his right shoulder, pitching her sideways and tumbling her into the weeds. She lay in the grass for an unsettlingly long time, frustrated but unhurt.
Although the mistake cost her a lot of points, Myszka said it was a relief. She has been down on herself for struggling with the school's tougher horses, but after a pep talk from NARA founder Chris McCarron, she hopped back on Gus for a practice ride. That's when everything turned around.
“Getting on him the second time was the most comfortable I've felt on a horse in the past two weeks,” she said. “I've never lacked that much confidence riding before; it was a huge setback for me. I know with a lot of people, it's being afraid of falling. I've fallen so many times, it's not really a fear right now. I've just been anticipating things and the horses feel that.”
Courtney Comroe drew Polo for her first ride, a sensitive and quick light bay gelding who had proved difficult for her before. She fretted about the test for days but kept Polo collected until halfway through the course, when he took advantage of the slack she'd left in the reins and started quickening. Comroe's uncertainty came flooding back to her, and she leaned into the left rein, taking Polo off course in tight circles to regain control. After one loop, the horse rocked back onto his hind legs and relaxed, but she kept him turning until he was at a walk.
“I'm not doing this,” she told instructor Dixie Hayes. Hayes understood what she meant—not, 'I'm incapable' or, 'I refuse,' but, 'I'm stuck, and I can't seem to get unstuck.'
“It's all right. It's all right to fail. There's nothing wrong with it,” Hayes told her earlier in the week as she worried about the test. “That's the way you grow, the way you learn.”
The frustrating thing is that Comroe, who had virtually no experience in the saddle before beginning the course, is very natural in the tack when she isn't taking her doubts along for the ride. Her instructors meet with her ahead of her second ride and map out a new plan—Comroe won't be headed to the track this summer. Instead, she'll learn to work with yearlings and 2-year-olds. And she's happy with that.
“I really enjoyed this semester,” she said. “I feel really grateful that I got to experience what it's like to do this. Above all else, I worked hard. I don't know what the future will hold, but it will definitely be with horses.”
Though it may seem counterintuitive to send an intermediate rider to work with young horses, Bellocq said it's often a good match, as long as the horse doesn't tend to rear. Young horses aren't as fast or strong as the school horses Comroe has dealt with, and they tend to be more responsive to the bit. They'll also give her the tools to deal with a wide range of personalities and tricks, as they test what they can get away with.
For Comroe's second day of testing, the pressure is off and she aces the course aboard Gus.
The second day of testing proves better for everyone. Myszka finishes strong aboard Mack after Monday's setback, and Steinbeck and Natasha Armstrong successfully open up Polo and Gus on the gallop segment of the course, getting a taste of the speed they've been craving.
“Everything was beautiful,” said Steinbeck. “There's a difference between getting run off with and getting to ask for it, and having them collected and controlled until you ask and they give it to you. There's nothing else like it.”
Kristina Renn misses a couple of marks on her turns during both tests and while she finished this class in good standing, she will also not be continuing to the track yet. For Renn, who had never been on a horse before January and who has been juggling a job and caring for her two young children along with this class, the semester has still been a success. And she's not giving up on her dream yet.
“I've been working really hard for the last four months,” she said. “Kids are a big responsibility that you have to progress with. They're right beside me [through this].”
Renn will be taking a few basic equitation classes and some general classes at Bluegrass Community and Technical College to strengthen her skills before reexamining her suitability for the jockey pathway.
Hayes, who is one of five instructors helping grade the exams, is keeping an especially close eye on the proceedings. She'll be taking over more of the instruction for the next class, in which the students will begin track work. As a former exercise rider and trainer, Hayes has a particular idea of what she wants to see in a hopeful jockey. So far, Kody Kellenberger fits the bill for her.
“You give him the structure, you give him the feedback, he can take it, he can process it,” she said. “He kind of hit a rut, but I think a lot of that was just frustration. I'm just so proud of him. You can tell when he opens the horses up, he's a natural. He rode up and reached down and grabbed my hand…just seeing that pride in his face, that makes everything worth it.
“He's special. He did that ride after spending night shift at the farm. He hasn't slept yet.”
She's also looking out for subtleties of the riders' positions that she'll want to correct this summer. Hayes explains to David Mussad after his final ride of the semester that it's time to begin drawing his elbows in closer to his body for more effective use of his arms.
“Think about crushing a can between your shoulder blades,” she told him. “When you're stopping a horse, think about all your body muscles—instead of just your arms pulling back, think closing all your muscles down. Your abs, your back. If we can get you to pull those elbows in just a touch more, you'll be great.”
Bellocq has jokingly referred to the class as the Thoroughbred version of The Hunger Games, since only the strongest, most determined students survive the rigorous program. The comparison is an apt one, not for the class, but for the entire jockey studies program at NARA—of the ten students who began the class in the semester, six will move forward, and Bellocq typically sees a few more defections as the riders begin picking up speed on the track and (later in the program) head to the starting gate.
It's important to remember, he points out, that the program is as much about the broad strokes of education as it is turning out jockeys. Myszka and Steinbeck are too tall to ride races, and have only ever intended to use skills gained here in an exercise riding or training capacity, and the program has been successful there, too—most recently, NARA graduate Elle Harrell was named foreman at trainer Joe Sharp's barn. For those who are determined to cross a finish line in the afternoon, the journey is far from over.
“It's hard when you have to trim the sails as you go along, but that's my job and I don't do it lightly,” said Bellocq. “When we decide to tell a student they're not going to go on to the next class, it's hard. I have to base that decision not on whether they'll be a good rider five years from now, but I have to base that decision on the right now.”
May the odds ever be in their favor.
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