What It Takes To Be A Jockey
By Frank Lovato Jr.
(article appeared in Horses Magazine, issue Aug. 2008)
For many youngsters who feel the need for speed via horseback, the idea of becoming a thoroughbred jockey seems the perfect solution. I get so many kids each year that come to me looking for some sort of advice and direction into this career of being a jockey. It’s tough to find any information unless you know someone in the business. There is no guide, handbook, or general rule on how to become a jockey or what is involved, but I hope that I can somewhat enlighten anyone and everyone about this mysterious career.
ARE YOU THE RIGHT SIZE?
The first question I get when asked what it takes to be a jockey is “you have to be short, right?” To me that would compare to asking what it takes to be a lawyer and just needing a briefcase. Of course it doesn’t hurt being short but it’s more about the weight of the person, not the height. Jockeys tend to be short people only because they can make the weight assignments required in thoroughbred horse racing. I am 5′ but I was one of the shorter jockeys. The average jockey is somewhere between 5′2″ and 5′4″. I knew one jockey that was 5′10″ but that is rare. He was quite skinny as you could imagine. Jockeys should weigh approximately 110 pounds and apprentices (rookies) 105 pounds or less. If you are already much heavier then that, for your health, please reconsider the idea of wanting to be a jockey. The weight however, is only one of many things in what it takes to be a jockey.
DO YOU HAVE HEART /NOFEAR?
So, are you fearless and feel the need for speed? Well, it definitely takes a lot of guts for this job, but there is a big difference between riding fearlessly and riding carelessly and irresponsibly. Good jockeys ride carefully by not taking unnecessary risks that put themselves, the horses, and other jockeys in any more danger then is already involved in race-riding. There are times when taking a dangerous chance like slipping through a small opening between horses warrants taking such a risk, but a good jockey knows when taking risks is necessary and when it’s not. Bad riding, making dangerous decisions, taking risky chances out there on the track can cause horses and jockeys to crash to the ground with enormous force. You are not only riding for your own life and safety, but everyone that is out there on the track with you.
DO YOU HAVE THE ATHELTIC ABILITY?
Are you athletic? Great at sports? Can you already ride the hair off a horse at high speeds? Ok, those are a couple more ingredients that would qualify you for the job. Still there is much more to being a good jockey. Actually, the best jockeys have patience, finesse, good sense of pace, quiet calm hands in the reins (who’d a thunk). Yes, its true! It’s not just about speed. In thoroughbred racing, it’s the one who finishes first at the end of the race that gets the prize! It’s all about winning of course. Jockeys need to position and place their horses during the first part of the race – getting their horses to relax and pace themselves so that they will have something left for a strong finish to get the win.
Being a good jockey is also not just about physical strength. It’s not like a baseball player who is able to swing with all his might to hit the ball out of the ballpark. It’s more like a golfer whose slow, smooth, easy swing and good rhythm hits the ball straight and long down the fairway. Thoroughbreds are big, strong, amazing animals to ride but they do not always have a good pair of brakes or power steering. It’s not just push to go and pull back to whoa, pull the right rein to turn right and the left rein to turn left. It can be much more complicated than that from horse to horse. Race horses can react very well to feeling your hands in the reins. As a rider you can often get better response from the horse using your feel and senses with a good set of hands. Trying to out muscle a race horse is not always going to work but, when all else fails, then you just have to use that muscle.
ARE YOU PHYSICALLY FIT?
Jockeys have to be in incredible physical condition and fitness in order to ride races. It is said that pound for pound, jockeys are the fittest athletes in the world. How does a jockey train to gain this fitness needed? Well, you train by riding race horses everyday. You might start by exercise riding only one or two race horses during training hours every day and build up to more. Running, swimming, biking, weightlifting, etc., although great exercise for general fitness, are not enough to condition you to ride a horse. This was why I created the Equicizer (mechanical horse) as it offers riders the ability to practice and simulate riding maneuvers, train and maintain the fitness and flexibility needed for riding horses. I created the Equicizer 27 years ago when I was injured in a riding accident and needed serious rehabilitation. I had to learn how to walk again and as I got stronger, I knew I needed something to strengthen me to ride a horse prior to actually getting on a real horse. But there was just nothing out there at the time. So I built myself a horse from wood and springs that over the years I developed into the Equicizer. www.equicizer.com
WHERE DO YOU GO TO LEARN TO BE A JOCKEY? Traditionally, there were no jockey schools or official place to learn the skills to be a jockey here in the United States. Typically you needed to have someone in your family who was into racing or get a low paying job on a racetrack or some horse farm that trained racehorses. My dad was a jockey so that was my “foot in the door.” My mind and heart were set on being a jockey since age 3. My parents would have loved to talk me out of it but there was no way. My parents found a thoroughbred horse farm that was willing to hire me at age 13. Unfortunately, it was a 1,000 miles away from home. So at age 13, I said goodbye to my childhood and dedicated my life to what it takes to be a jockey. I was racing professionally by age 16, which is a very young age by today’s standards.
Almost every country in the world that has horse racing, has a jockey school or some sort of training program. When I started out, America had none. Most of the jockeys you see today started out much like I did or came from other countries that had jockey schools. Here in the United States, we all worked on thoroughbred horse farms and racetracks as kids, growing up learning how to ride race horses. If you stayed small and light enough, you might be able to become a jockey.
I can proudly say there is now a first class facility here in the Midwest called the North American Racing Academy (NARA) located in Lexington, Kentucky. This is the vision of retired jockey and Hall of Famer Chris McCarron. Mr. McCarron’s facility currently resides at the Kentucky Horse Park. NARA is also affiliated with the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, offering college courses where you can further your education. Mr. McCarron’s mission with NARA is to develop and operate a world-class racing school that will provide students with the education, training, and experience needed to not only to become skilled jockeys, but also become proficient in the care and management of racehorses and knowledgeable about the workings of the racing industry as a whole. NARA can be found on the web at http://nara.kctcs.edu/ or call 859-246-6678
Another avenue is the Frank Garza Jockey School located in Southern California, web address; frankgarzajockeyschool.com . Mr. Garza offers his farm operation to help anyone who may want to be jockeys, exercise riders, or trainers.
There is the old fashion way to become a jockey by researching any nearby thoroughbred horse farms or training centers in your area. I do not recommend and is not likely you could learn to ride at a racetrack. Horse farms are the best and safest places to learn. Check the yellow pages or local feed/tack store. If you have internet access, you may find something by searching the web for “thoroughbred horse farm” and see if there is a directory for your area. You may find a farms with email addresses, phone numbers etc. If there are any thoroughbred racetracks nearby, maybe you can try and contact a trainer who might lead you in the right direction in finding a good local farm that trains race horses.
When finding a place that may be interested in hiring you, do not expect to show up with your helmet and boots ready to jump into your illustrious career. In order for people to consider letting you take their expensive race horses out for a spin, you will likely have to start from the bottom with lots of ground work, cleaning stalls, mending fences, and learning all about horse care with little to no pay. You will have to start out as an exercise rider for the race horses before you will be able to learn the skills to ride races. Every job in horse racing, including a jockey’s, usually means early hours, working 7 days a week, and not too many vacations. I would recommend when looking for work, only mention that you would like to be an exercise rider. Sometimes when you tell people off the bat that you want to become a jockey, their attitude may change and it could create unnecessary pressure for your self in the work place.
My last advice if you would like to be a jockey – always surround yourself with good, caring people in the business or horse racing. Work hard and stay out of trouble. A good work ethic will make people want to help you along and create good opportunities for the owners and trainers to give you a chance to ride their horses. Even with all the best jockey skills in the world, without good horses to ride, you can never be successful in this business.
There are so many misconceptions and other things that come along with being a jockey. I just scratched the surface with this piece. It appears to be a very cool job loaded with glamour and rewards. The truth is that it is that it can be a very unstable, uncertain, and dangerous career. If anyone would like some further information or if you have any questions, feel free to contact me at Equicizer@aol.com.
About the writer: Frank Lovato Jr was the 1980 Eclipse Award Winning Apprentice of the nation and also the creator of the Equicizer. The Equicizer is mechanical horse that enables horse riders to train, exercise and use as a therapuetic tool when a real horse may not be an option. Frank retired from racing in late 2004 with 1,686 wins from 15,603 mounts. Now residing in Norwalk, Ohio, Frank works full time with his Equicizer business.
For more information, please contact Frank or Sandy Lovato; Phone: 419-663-1472 Email:Equicizer@aol.com
visit our website: www.Equicizer.com
HORSEJOBS.CA NOTE FOR CANADIAN READERS – Olds College, Alberta offers excellent jockey training courses and other racing industry training and qualifications.
University of Guelph, Ontario offers GROOM ONE an excellent start for those interested in becoming a groom or rider at the track.