Exploring this Job

Anyone interested in a career with horses should first get used to being around them. Volunteer at a stable or take riding lessons. Some stables need part-time and full-time help, depending on the season and location. Many larger facilities offer positions where you may clean stalls, feed and groom horses, and maintain stables. 4-H is also a good place for you to get involved with the care, grooming, and sport of horses, and there are many organized racing clubs for youth that can give you valuable racing experience.

The Job

Jockeys ride thoroughbred racehorses on the horse racing circuit. It is the jockey's job to guide his or her horse, or mount, through the horse traffic on the way to the finish line. Years of hard work, practice, and racing experience can teach a jockey how to successfully move the horse through the crowd, but there is no substitute for instinct and daring. Split-second timing and quick reflexes are also among the necessary qualities. Jockeys may work with trainers, grooms, and exercisers to develop the horses for racing, or they may ride them several times prior to a race to develop racing strategies. Special exercises or drills focus on building the horse's stamina for longer races or developing a final "kick" or spurt of speed for the finish of a race. Trainers also run the horse through time trials, pushing the horse through several mock races in the same way a sprinter or long distance runner practices by running a series of sprints or taking different routes of varied distances.

In addition to learning a horse's strengths and how to ride it successfully in a race, many jockeys submit their bodies to tough workouts in the gym. Being in good shape is crucial for many reasons. A jockey's weight is important because the lighter the rider, the less burdened the horse is by the added weight and the faster the horse may be able to run. However, lightness alone is not worth much without the requisite strength and skill to control powerful, often spirited horses. The successful jockey is in excellent physical condition, has quick reflexes, and has a good "touch" with the riding crop. In addition to working out the horses and working out in the gym, jockeys study films in order to see their mistakes and learn techniques from more experienced riders. Every race is photographed, filmed, or captured on video, primarily as a safeguard. If a jockey feels another horse illegally passed or moved up, he or she can have the race finish questioned. However, the films and videos are instructive, too. The races are shot from many different angles, and young riders can learn about race riding by picking up tactics and strategies from the films. Jockeys help each other. If a young jockey shows interest and the willingness to listen, he or she will be rewarded by the advice of older, more experienced jockeys.

Most jockeys work as independent contractors who ride for different barns, trainers, and owners. A specific barn may hire a good jockey for a whole season because that jockey works well with a certain horse. Like other athletes, agents often represent the more successful jockeys to negotiate the terms of their contracts with owners and trainers.

Generally, jockeys have fairly stable working hours during racing season. Their days usually begin early in the morning and end in the early evening after a long day of racing.

On race day, each jockey wears breeches, boots, cap, and a colorful blouse in the special colors of the horse's owner. These colorful shirts are made from silk and, for that reason, are known as the jockey's silks.

Before each race, jockeys are weighed with their saddles so that track officials can be certain each horse is carrying its assigned weight. Racing saddles usually weigh around two pounds. Horses are saddled in the paddock, an enclosed area off the track. The jockeys mount their horses and are then summoned by a bugle call to begin moving to the starting gate, or post. The horses must move in a single-file line toward the post; this is known as the parade to the post. Because the number of horses in any race may vary from as few as five to as many as 20, the jockey must be able to handle his or her horse around other horses, especially when the horse becomes distracted or nervous.

The race begins when all of the horses and jockeys are in position within the individual stalls in the starting gate. The official race starter presses a button that rings a bell and opens the gate, and the horses charge out. During the race, the jockeys must utilize their quick reflexes and knowledge of pace to make split-second decisions. Their goal is to continually better their horse's position among the other horses, or the field, by making strategic, well-timed, and legal moves and passes. Some horses naturally have a particular style, such as a strong finish, and it is up to the jockey to manage or shape that style into a win, place, or show finish—first, second, and third, respectively.

The winning jockey is weighed again after the race, and his or her horse is tested for the presence of illegal drugs. In photo-finish races, stewards, or judges, determine the winner by studying photographs or video of the race finish. A tie is referred to in the industry as a dead heat.

If a rider believes he or she was fouled by another horse and rider (by being bumped or prevented from passing in an illegal manner, for example), he or she may go to the race stewards and claim a foul. The stewards then examine any camera footage they have available to them and make a ruling as to whether or not the horse (and rider) will be disqualified. Following a race, jockeys spend several hours studying films of their race to improve their technique and study the strengths and weaknesses of the competition.