Late into April, the students in the North American Racing Academy's introductory riding course are starting to adopt the look of professional exercise riders. Their unsteady circles, formerly punctuated by losses of control, have smoothed into rolling canter figure-eights across the gallop field at The Thoroughbred Center.
Daily practice has given the group of eight an emergency brake, a steering wheel, and a few tutorials in confidence. Now, says NARA executive director Remi Bellocq, they're tasked with learning some finesse.
“Now, as you can see, they're getting close to having a good position on the horse,” said Bellocq. “That comes from physics—if you're going to ride a racehorse, you're going to be in a two-point, forward seat position. The trick then, is to keep the students from pulling on a horse and rocking forward.”
The moment a beginning rider's upper body tips forward, their legs and heels tend to slide back, and they lose their stability and leverage to use the reins. Bellocq has been coaching the riders to keep their legs forward and hands back, asking if they can see their toes poking out in front of their knees as they stand in the stirrups. If not, the lower leg is not where it should be.
It may seem for observers at home as though jockeys use the reins primarily to hold the horse in place at the beginning of the race and unleash them toward the end. In reality, jockeys and exercise riders don't use their reins that differently from a dressage or event rider, according to Bellocq: to get a consistent gallop, especially in the mornings, riders are frequently adjusting their contact with the horse's mouth, taking back for a stride or two and relaxing, reacting and (ideally) keeping as little tension in the reins and bit as possible.
“Don't get into a fight with them unless you have to,” he said. “Sometimes you have to; if you do, assert yourself, and then immediately reward them.
“It's hard because sometimes these kids have no riding experience, or very little.”
Bellocq prefers to give the students small pieces of instruction during a class and let them find an optimal position based on feel, rather than bombard them with constant abstract pointers. He doesn't take film of the students for the purpose of reviewing their form; he would rather they develop an instinctive sense for how to use their bodies, and adjust smaller elements of equitation later. Instinct, more than instruction, will help them make critical split-second decisions in the stirrups.
Part of that instinct is the physics of riding a racehorse—the arrangement of the rider's hands and legs relative to the horse's mouth determines how “loud” their signals are to the horse, and unsurprisingly, different horses prefer different volumes. The best riders are the ones who, as NARA founder Chris McCarron often says, know how to “stay out of the horse's way” and speak at just the right volume.
One of the best teachers for this is a big, dark gelding called “Marble” (the students jokingly wonder if he was named for the very thing he seems to have lost). Marble was not one of the easy-going geldings waiting quietly in the early part of the semester while students fiddled clumsily with girths and reins. Marble needs a firm whisper. He demands his riders lighten their hold on his mouth periodically, or he takes off—and he can always pull harder than a 20-something.
“He's a good challenge for people,” said Bellocq. “Usually each year we'll get one or two kids who are kind of further along, so we like to have a horse like Marble. He knows immediately who's on his back. You don't get into a fight with him.
“We have yet to find a student who has really mastered him yet [this semester].”
Bellocq has assembled a range of horses to help him teach the NARA students—a group of off-track Thoroughbreds and an ornery paint named Montana who is only too happy to educate riders about the use of copious leg.
“We try to have a little range where we have a real easy horse to ride in case we have someone who's gotten run off with to get their confidence back, so they can work on their seat and everything else,” he said. Mac and Gus are easygoing fellows, while Marble and Polo are a bit more challenging.
Bellocq gets calls from time to time offering off-track horses to the school, but it's a careful screening process; serious behavior issues like rearing and bucking are not tolerated, and the horses must be sound enough to participate in regular training. If a school horse is no longer able to keep up with the pace of the program, New Vocations helps find the horse an appropriate home. Several have gone on to be show horses, and many have become polo ponies.
Every student has their favorite in the barn; for Courtney Comroe, it's Jackson, who has patiently helped her work through her anxiety about cantering in the big field. Kody Kellenberger prefers whichever horse will give him the biggest challenge. For Erin Steinbeck, it's a tie between Mac and Lady.
“Lady's my sedative, he's my happy pill,” she said, explaining that Lady adopts the attitude of her rider, so a whitewashed mind and still hand are crucial. Mac needs more animation, but once he get it, he gives Steinbeck the wings she craves.
“He reminds me why I'm doing this,” she said with a smile.
There's not much opportunity to play favorites, though—at this point in the semester, Bellocq makes up a set list each morning and switches students to different horses at least once or twice during a class period. The class doesn't know it until the week before their final exams, but this will be part of their test; they will ride a set of patterns at a range of speeds on two different, randomly-drawn horses.
As anxiety mounts about the final, the students get a break during one class session on the Tuesday ahead of the Kentucky Derby: NARA founder Chris McCarron brings the class on an annual pilgrimage to the Churchill Downs backstretch, where he introduces them to his former employers and colleagues.
The morning begins with a few minutes watching Dortmund and American Pharoah work under the Twin Spires, followed by a whirlwind of introductions to Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas, Victor Espinoza, Martin Garcia, Jim Cassidy, Donna Barton Brothers, and Tammy Fox. For many of these lifelong racing fans, shaking the hand of last year's Derby-winning rider seems like something out of a dream.
For two of the students though, it's still sometimes hard not to do a double-take at their mentor—McCarron.
“I don't think it'll ever be [normal] that he pops up in classes and teaches us,” said Ricki Richards. “Not for me, at least.”
Steinbeck is awestruck but a little more philosophical.
“Obviously he has done some fantastic things, but he's still a person, just like any of us,” she mused.
The students will have to shake the stars from their eyes after the Derby (the class pick, by the way, was eventual winner American Pharoah). Final exams will be here soon, and they will determine which of the students move on to the next phase of their training, and which ones have reached their finish line.
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