The art of an exercise rider | Horse Racing

Returning to the horse racing industry after 17 years spent away, Emerald Downs racetrack in Auburn, has become my temporary home for the season. Working as a freelance writer for equine magazines and in media relations, I also exercise horses at the track in the mornings.

  • Thursday, April 14, 2011 11:11pm
  • Sports

Kimberly Wales has worked in the thoroughbred industry as a jockey

Returning to the horse racing industry after 17 years spent away, Emerald Downs racetrack in Auburn,  has become my temporary home for the season. Working as a freelance writer for equine magazines and in media relations, I also exercise horses at the track in the mornings.

As a former jockey and exercise rider, the feel of the flat saddle beneath my seat was immediate familiar territory. Although I’ve been exercising now only a month, I find it amazing that the mind and body of an athlete conforms instantaneously to what it knows, and in my case, nearly two decades later.

While riding as a jockey in my twenties, my focus was breezing horses in the mornings, those mounts I would ride in the afternoon. It was different from the occupation of an exercise rider, where it’s harder to take a hold than it is to let ‘em roll.

Although the profession of a jockey is certainly more glamorous, there is much to be said about the strength, stamina and balance it takes to be an exercise rider. While pound for pound jockeys physically exceed beyond many professional sports athletes, exercise riders are as equally fit and truly the unsung heroes of the oval. The finesse of holding back the power of an eleven hundred pound snorting horse, eager from 20 hours of stall confinement is without doubt one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.

The fact is, exercise riders are a critical factor in the success of a trainer. The technique of riding and good horsemanship is truly an art and there are more variables to it than can be named. Beyond having physical strength, skill and patience, every rider must come to know horses as individuals. Many things factor in and there are no cookie cutter methods. Considering mental and physical development, temperament, past injuries, training progression, following instructions, these are just a few things that contribute to providing the best exercise programs for equine athletes.

An exercise rider’s job is one of continuous evaluation and multitasking. While one horse may require slowing the body and mind, the next animal may need to learn more aggression. One horse may need to build his confidence. Another may have a short attention span, requiring the distraction of company to dissuade him from gazing at the grandstand, infield, onlookers and the daily ‘traffic’ of the racetrack. Every path taken in the morning leads to the success (or not) of the horse running in the afternoon.

Then there’s schooling in the paddock and the starting gate, teaching horses to come to grips with their internal fear, managing the instinctive ‘fight or flight syndrome’ rooted in them. Exercise riders must be in tune with their horses, watching the flick of the ear, being one with the animal’s every muscle, questioning yet relaying confidence. Is the horse intelligent or not? Does he respond to leg pressure and sure steady hands, or will he blow up and bolt? Does he need blinkers to help his focus? Will the discipline of the whip educate or send him sailing?

To sum it up, good exercise riders are gold to a trainer. Employing the senses, they are the keepers of every horse they ride, an instinctive human checklist of change in a horse’s gait, attitude, stamina, and overall well being. And, their dependability is a must. Unlike other professions where a substitute worker will do, good trainers don’t just put anyone with a helmet on their horses. Because of their importance, exercise riders work nearly seven days per week and many of them year round.

The occupation, to be sure, is a dangerous one. Even the best-trained or well-behaved horses can take a wrong step or have unforeseen injuries that lead to breakdown for both horse and rider. Situations on the racetrack happen in a heartbeat. One loose horse on the racetrack can endanger everyone out there, causing a collision or a chain reaction. A horse flipping on a rider in the gate, a bad fall from a behavior problem, broken tack. The list goes on. An exercise rider must have a constant awareness.

Each time these fearless people step into the saddle, their knowledge, experience and instincts must kick in, for their life literally does rest in their hands. Their ability to make wise, split-second decisions can ultimately be the difference between life and death for themselves.

I know firsthand this danger. I’ve broken my clavicle, ankle, elbow, nose, toes, hand, foot, ribs, tibia, vertebrae, crushed my hip, bruised my internal organs, had my wrist slashed from a horse shoe, suffered concussions that made the birds sing, gone over the inside and outside fences, been flipped on, bucked off, squished, stomped and have I missed anything yet? Yes, it’s a risky business.

Still, within the hazards, there is the music, that melodic rhapsody which happens between horse and rider when the early morning sun casts the shadow of both upon the tilled earth between the rails. It is at this moment that all seems right with the world, when the drum of a horse’s hooves and the sound of their blowing breath fills you, when dawn’s pink and crimson light kisses the infield, and silhouettes roll through low ground fog.

It is true that every job has its pros and cons, its good days and bad days and so does exercise riding. But, I have to say, there is no other occupation in the world that can fill your soul like sitting on the back of a spirited horse and feeling like you’re the ruler of the world.

Kimberly Wales has worked in the Thoroughbred industry as a jockey, exercise rider and feature writer. She currently works mornings for trainer Larry Pierce, and also will spend the 2011 season working for The Gift Horse at Emerald Downs and the track’s media department. Kimberly also submits occasional feature stories about Thoroughbred racing.

 

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