Train to Become a Thoroughbred Horse Racing Jockey: Program Info

Read about training programs for becoming a thoroughbred horse racing jockey. Learn about skills you'll need to possess, training requirements and the employment outlook for the field.

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Essential Information

To become a thoroughbred horse racing jockey, you must know how to ride a horse, understand horse behavior and have racing experience. The most common way to begin is with private lessons, which many jockeys start at a very young age. Related work as a stable hand or in other positions that provide hands-on experience with horses can be helpful. Only a very small amount of college-level programs and courses exist related to horseback riding and, though beneficial, are not essential for becoming a jockey. Physical fitness and stamina are vital, and prospective jockeys must be keenly aware of the injury risks associated with horse racing.

Learning to Ride Horses

In order to learn the basics of horseback riding and become familiar with horse behavior, prospective jockeys may start by taking private lessons through a local stable or join a local 4-H horse care club. Many students interested in working with horses start at a young age - sometimes as early as six years old. There are several different riding styles typically offered to students, including English, Western and stunt riding. Individuals interested in becoming a thoroughbred horse racing jockey may study English style flat riding. In addition to basic riding skills, riding students often learn aspects of basic horse care and horse behavior analysis.

Racing Academy

College programs devoted exclusively to training jockeys are somewhat rare in the United States; however, the North American Racing Academy (NARA) features a 2-year training program for aspiring jockeys. Students interested in pursuing this training must have completed a high school diploma or GED prior to enrollment. This program is not an absolute requirement to be trained as a jockey.

A few universities offer post-graduate certificate, bachelor's degree and master's degree programs in equine science or equine business. These programs focus more on the business aspect of horse breeding or racetrack management and less on training to be a jockey.

Other Horse-Related Work

Many potential jockeys begin their career working in horse stables or participating in programs offered through a local 4-H club. They may start working as a groom or stable hand, feeding and grooming horses, as well as checking them for health problems, walking horses to cool down after races and cleaning their stalls. With experience, an aspiring jockey can be promoted to exercise rider on a racetrack. Exercise riders warm a horse up in the morning before a race, monitor the horse for behavioral issues and report observed health problems to the horse trainer.

Licensure Requirements for a Jockey

A student with some experience in horseback riding can usually obtain a license for a jockey apprenticeship at age 16, but specific age requirements vary according to state. In addition, some states require jockeys to be a certain weight; most trainers seek jockeys who weigh 120 pounds or less and can maintain that weight in a healthy manner.

Many states require a physical exam to be performed annually or require that applicants submit a medical affidavit. Some states also require applicants to serve as a stable hand for a number of years, take an examination and complete a certain number of races before they qualify for an apprentice license. After running a number of races and slowly reducing the weight handicap allowance, an apprentice loses their apprenticeship status and becomes a journeyman jockey.

Physical Fitness Requirement

Most trainers expect that jockeys are in excellent physical shape and below a certain weight. As a result, jockeys have to carefully monitor their nutrition in order to maintain that weight. Though horseback riding itself is strenuous exercise, many jockeys engage in additional cardiovascular training and weight exercises in order to increase their balance, core strength, flexibility and stamina.

Riding Ability

Horse racing is a dangerous occupation, even with safety equipment precautions such as helmets and support vests. For this reason, many tracks are starting to require safety reins - reins reinforced with a wire or nylon strap attached to a horse's bit - to reduce chances of catastrophic injuries should a rein break.

A jockey can become seriously or fatally injured if he or she loses control of a horse on the track or in the starting gate. Jockeys must therefore have years of previous experience around horses and understand how to control a horse. Apprentice jockeys must understand how to safely depart from the starting gate, navigate turns in the race and move among other horses. Many state licensing offices require potential apprentices to acquire a written affidavit from a registered horse trainer that certifies their skill and training in horse riding.

Career Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that athletes and sports competitors, including jockeys, were predicted to see an employment increase of 7% from 2012-2022, which was faster than average. These professionals took in an average salary of $71,850 per year in May 2013, according to the BLS. However, there was a very large variance in wages. The bottom-paid ten percent of athletes and sports competitors made $18,630 or less per year, while the top-paid ten percent of professionals earned more than $187,199 annually.

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