Kentucky derby, jockey, jockey test, fitness test

Are You Strong Enough to Be a Jockey?

These slight athletes guide horses 12 times their size.

Weighing an average of 108 to 118 pounds, jockeys are easily less than half the size of NFL linebackers. While they have no specific height requirements, the shorter, the better. And despite their small stature, they’re expected to lead powerful horses weighing about 1,200 pounds at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour.

Jockeys are bound to be sore in the days that follow a race like the Kentucky Derby, which happens every May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. “People feel that the horse does 90 percent of the work and the jockey does 10 percent,” says Richard Perham, a former professional jockey in the UK with 230 wins under his belt. (He has even ridden for Queen Elizabeth II.) “I ask them this question: ‘What happens if two horses in a race are of equal ability?’ If you’re more fit than the jockey riding next to you, you’ll have the physical and mental advantage.”

After noticing that many young riders still didn’t see themselves as athletes even after going through traditional training programs, Perham created a boot camp at the British Racing School (BRS) in Newmarket, England, where he is now the senior coach. 

Perham notes that jockeys stay in the anaerobic state throughout much of a race and at maximum heart rate for up to two minutes. “For this reason, they need lots of cardio training so they don’t get fatigued,” he says. He compares the importance of balance in racing to that in yoga, with one caveat: If you lose your balance in standing bow pose during class, you land on your mat. If jockeys lose their balance during a race, they risk crashing onto the track under galloping hooves. 

That’s risky business, and it explains why young riders need fall training. “By replicating the fall in a safe gym environment, we can analyze and correct their technique,” explains Perham. Falling safely eventually becomes a natural instinct.

Riding professionally takes full-body strength. The quads get a particular hammering, Perham says, but equally important are the core and upper body, which are crucial for steering the horse. At the BRS training suite, the athletes do many familiar exercises like wall squats, balance drills, planks, and sit-ups. But they need special equipment to train for the martini glass pose, the crouched stance they hold during a race. This position helps them move relative to their horses and minimize unnecessary movement that would weigh them down. 
  

Jockeys-in-training practice riding on RPSimulators at the British Racing School in Newmarket, England.

To master this, jockeys use Perham’s specially designed RPSimulator, which is their equivalent of a mechanical bull: It takes the place of the horse and mimics the feel of a ride. “We combine it with other exercises (like the ones below) to create a seriously hard but quick workout that targets all the relevant muscles for riding,” Perham says. 

Athletes of all types can use this workout to strengthen their bodies. Try the routine below to see if you’re fit enough to ride.

Exercise Ball Squats and Hold
Place a Swiss ball between your lower back and a wall. Perform 20 squats, so that the ball rolls up and down while you squat. On your final rep, pick up 12-pound dumbbell, hold it to your chest, and stay in the squat position, with knees bent at 90 degrees and thighs parallel to the ground, for 2 minutes. 

Stability Cushion Squat
Stand with feet hip-width apart with a stability cushion under each foot. Hold a PVC pipe with hands slightly wider than hip width, then extend arms straight in front of you at shoulder height. Lower into a squat position, with knees bent at 90 degrees and thighs parallel to the ground. Hold this position for 4 minutes.

Push-Up Hold
Get in a high push-up position, with feet hip-width apart and hands flat on the ground. Lower your body (as if doing a push-up) until your arms are bent at 90 degrees. Keeping your elbows close to your sides, hold this position for 90 seconds. 

Cable Presses
Using a seated cable press machine, add enough weight that you feel moderate resistance in the cables when you push. Set a metronome to 50 beats per minute (or use an app) and press forward with every beat. Continue for 2 minutes. 

Horizontal Leg Raises
Lie on a mat with arms extended over your head and set a metronome to 50 beats per minute. Keeping legs straight, perform horizontal leg raises in time with the metronome, raising your legs to a vertical position on one beat and lowering them close to the floor on the next. Continue for 2 minutes.

Plank
Maintain a forearm plank position with feet hip-width apart, elbows shoulder-width apart, and hands locked together. Keeping your body straight, without arching back or pushing glutes into the air, hold this position for 4 minutes. 

Tune in to the 144th Kentucky Derby when it airs on NBC on Saturday, May 5.