Where do racetrack exercise riders come from? How do they become exercise riders?
How do they learn to ride racehorses and what special skills do they need?
Many racetrack riders learn to ride as kids, and often in an uncontrolled and unsupervised environment where they end up riding horses (or other animals) that an adult would never let them ride – like the neighbor’s hogs (true story!) From some of the stories they tell of riding while growing up, you’d be amazed that they made it through to adulthood at all. Riding many different kinds of horses in various environments is how they learn balance and relaxation atop a leaping, lunging, spinning, bucking, rearing, or out of control horse – an essential skill for exercising racehorses.
The lucky kids grow up in a racing family and learn to ride racehorses from a trusted family member early on while they have a kid’s natural balance and fearlessness. Many exercise riders do come from a show background, but riding well broke horses in the controlled environment that most competition or show riders learn in, will not prepare a rider for the racetrack, no matter what the level of competition the rider has participated in.
A racetrack exercise rider must be able to deal with, and if possible correct habits or problems of the horse, such as leaning on the bit heavily while galloping, head tossing, difficulty switching leads or refusal to switch leads, “lugging” in or out, the tendency to race every horse that passes while training, or in general teach the horse to relax, use himself correctly, and rate his energy.
Exercise riders have to take the time to teach a horse to go through a hole on the rail with a horse to their outside, or just to go through a space between two horses in general. Riders have to teach the horse to accept dirt in the face, how and when to switch leads, and how to carry themselves at a gallop and jog so that the correct muscles are strengthened. The rider has to teach a horse to walk calmly in the gate, to stand calmly in the gate, and to break from the gate alertly when asked. The rider has to be able to gauge a horse’s fitness and relay this information to the trainer, as well as relaying information about other issues such as soreness or lameness.
Exercise riders also have to understand the trainer’s instructions about how far to jog and gallop a horse, and how fast and far to work a horse. Perhaps the most important thing a rider has to do is deal calmly with the chaos of the racetrack, and with the lack of control in this chaos. A rider must adapt to the physical and mental needs of both green and older horses, and always impart to the horse a quiet confidence that the horse will need to improve mentally and physically and win races.
The best way to start? Find a small training center and a trainer with another rider on staff who is willing to teach you. Work there until you are bored to death, then go to a bigger training center or farm. When you ride at the racetrack for the first time, make sure everybody knows you’re new and green. If you ask for help and advice, the veterans will watch you and help you. Accidents happen when new riders start galloping at the racetrack without sufficient experience, or without telling trainers and other riders that they’re new, so if you are an aspiring exercise rider or jockey, please don’t make that mistake.
Most jockeys start out learning to do what exercise riders do, and spend years doing it before they ever ride in a race. Many of the same qualities and skills that jockeys need are also requirements for exercise riders, such as:
- concentration and awareness
- intelligent bravery and confidence
- humility and patience
- empathy and tactfulness
- dedication and discipline
- balance, strength, and agility
What do exercise riders make in salary or for freelance riding? Generally $10-$15/head for freelancers, $500-$700/week (about $30,000/year before taxes) for salaried riders. Freelancers can generally ride about 8 horses/day. Most riders work 7 days/week, so average $700/week before taxes for freelancers. Some salaried riders are lucky enough to work for a trainer who pays bonuses several times a year, generally at least 1% of the trainer’s share of purse money earned. If a rider is unbelievably lucky, his or her employer will also pay for housing, travel expenses and a week off per year. I’ve never heard of an exercise rider receiving health insurance benefits. Smart owners will make sure that their trainer is at a minimum paying bonuses to staff based on purse earnings, because this is an important incentive for riders and grooms.