Following the advice of his doctors, Ramon Dominguez still hasn't set a timetable for his return to the saddle following a skull injury sustained in a January 18 spill. Even after he's declared physically sound to return to work, Dominguez will face another challenge—getting physically fit for riding.
But what does that mean, exactly? Not surprisingly, the art of being a jockey takes incredible strength but also requires riders to watch their weight. Conditioning after some time off ideally includes a balance between working out and bulking up.
Many riders find the best way to start is by jogging or swimming, both of which boost aerobic capacity.
“The category of strength that is required to ride a Thoroughbred is more stamina than overall brute strength. We have to stay perched on their back for different lengths of time, depending upon the distance of the race,” said Chris McCarron, former jockey and founder of the North American Racing Academy.
Jogging, especially if done on an incline, also strengthens a jockey's all-important leg muscles. McCarron recalls Mike Smith, Alex Solis, David Flores and Joe Talamo running in the mountains above Santa Anita Park to keep fit—Solis with weights on his back to increase stamina.
Although Dominguez is still in physical therapy and not ready to condition for a return to the track, he said jogging will be an important element.
“I love running because I feel like it's really a full workout and you're exercising your upper body too,” he said.
Dominguez said he prefers to avoid rigorous work in the gym so he doesn't put on too much extra muscle mass.
McCarron said toward the end of his career when he was riding less, he would hit the gym three times a week using small weights for many repetitions to boost muscular stamina.
At the North American Racing Academy, McCarron has his students ride Equicizers for 50 minutes at a time to hone their form, stamina, and balance.
Other riders, like Dominguez, use the Equicizer more as a quick workout on race day than a conditioning tool in the weeks leading to a return.
“I teach my students a very basic, very simple concept, and that is to minimize the degree of hindrance that we create on the horse's back,” said McCarron.
That seamlessness requires a rider to instruct their mount in efficient balance and rhythm with the horse's movement.
“I would say after a couple weeks of exercising hard, you're pretty close to being as fit as you can be to riding races,” said Dominguez. “Nothing that you can do physically outside riding races, regardless of how close it is to the motion and all, will get you as fit as the actual race. I don't know if the adrenaline has something to do with it, but riding the race is necessary to get to the top fitness level.”
Although it may not be obvious from the stands, a Thoroughbred uses rein tension to help keep its balance, creating a constant downward pull on the rider. As a result, jockeys must have extremely high forearm, hand, and core strength.
“We use virtually every muscle in our body when we're riding a horse,” said McCarron.
Even their neck muscles.
“You put a helmet (typically weighing 1.5 pounds) on when you're not fit and try to keep your head in a position where you can see where you're going for a minute and a half; it doesn't sound like a whole lot but it truly is,” McCarron said.
Like riders in other disciplines, some jockeys use yoga to improve balance and flexibility—both of which can reduce the severity of a fall and shorten recovery time after an injury. Some use yoga before or during a session in the sauna to stimulate extra sweating before weighing in.
As always for jockeys, maintaining the proper diet to nourish the body's increasing workload without adding fat is a challenge. For Dominguez, being in full riding shape requires him to eat more calories in a day than what he needs off the track, but his appetite doesn't change the moment he goes on lay-up. The key for him has been to distinguish between physical hunger and appetite, and to pile on the fruits and vegetables.
“It's a very difficult balance that must be maintained,” said McCarron. “It's individual but the key word is discipline.”
After keeping themselves in such top shape, Dominguez said jockeys can feel a loss in condition after just a few days away from the saddle—48 hours for him—but a high base level of fitness also makes it easier to get back in shape after a layoff.
For now, he's focused on completing his physical therapy, which he sees as key to safely beginning to work out again.
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