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So you want to be a Jockey

So you want to be a Jockey

Becoming a jockey
As the profession of jockey is classified as a skilled trade job, the conventional way to enter this field of work is via a classic, four-year apprenticeship. There are a number of requirements that a successful applicant to a jockey apprenticeship will possess:

  • Physical Requirements: a light build and specified weight (Although jockeys have the reputation of being elfishly small, the average jockey can be between 4'10" and 5'7"; the weight is far more crucial than the rider's height). 
  • Natural Ability: Most jockeys are naturally athletic and have an excellent sense of balance - which is imperative for obvious reasons. The job also requires steady nerves, as the pressure is inevitably going to be extreme.
  • Personal Attributes: Although it is very unlikely that someone who dislikes working with horses will apply to be a jockey, the love for the animals and an understanding of their needs and behaviours is essential in a successful applicant. A competitive streak will also work to the prospective rider's advantage. 

How To Get Started
Usually jockey apprenticeships are offered at training stables. The minimum age for an apprentice jockey is usually 16 years, although some stables will take 15-year-old apprentices. Interestingly the ability to ride is not an essential requirement for an apprentice jockey; however, if you have no previous experience, you will have to show a natural aptitude rather quickly and be a lot keener to learn than colleagues with extensive background of riding and caring for horses. To find out which stables are looking for apprentices it's easiest to use the usual channels like internet job search engines, government services and - should you have connections - word of mouth.

Apprenticing As A Jockey*
Being an apprentice jockey is a full-time occupation. In fact the hours are so extreme that it is most practical for the apprentice jockeys to live at the training stables in order to be able to start their working day at the crack of dawn. Apart from training on the track, the apprentice jockey will spend a lot of time maintaining the stables and grooming the horses in race preparation. Stable work and race training are completed with college-style classroom education on equine health and safety, as well as behavioural psychology to help the prospective jockeys gage the situation in a race scenario. During the apprenticeship the jockey will be paid a fairly low but steady income from his home stable, and will eventually get the chance to supplement his apprentice income with race winnings. As the professional jockeys the apprentices are paid a small mounting fee to compete in a race and receive 5% of the prize money if they win.

*In Ireland, FÁS sponsor a Trainee Jockey Course (FETAC Level 4). Upon successful completion of the Pre-Apprentice jockey Course, trainees are placed in a full-time job with a racehorse trainer, usually where they have undergone their previous on-the-job training. A training allowance is paid to trainees in accordance with FÁS rates for the duration of the Course. Accommodation meals etc. are free, but trainees are required to pay for their own riding equipment

Racing As A 'Bug Boy'
An apprentice jockey is known as a 'bug boy'. This nickname is derived from the * star icon that appears next to the name of an apprentice rider on the race card; allegedly it looks just like a bug. The apprentice 'loses his bug' either after the four years of apprenticeship or after winning an inordinate amount of races during their apprentice time. Although the rules of racing are obviously the same no matter whether pros or students are flying around the track, there are a few tiny allowances made for the novices. Apprentice jockeys are given what is called a '10-pound allowance', which means their horse is allowed to carry ten pounds less than the animals carrying professional riders. This allowance applies to the first five races of an apprentice. After the fifth race the allowance is dropped to a five-pound advantage, which the apprentice can claim for one year or his next forty races (depending on which comes first).

Risk Factor
Anyone thinking about joining the ranks of professional jockeys needs to be aware of the dangers involved in this exciting but tough work. At every horse race a number of ambulances are on constant standby only seconds from the track - which does not say much for job safety when it comes to the jockey. About 60% of jockeys will have a serious or semi-serious accident during their racing career. The most frequent injuries include concussion, fractures and paralysis in the worst case scenario. Jockeys are prone to be unseated by nervous horses, trampled by the competing field and are often injured when a horse takes a fall. The risk factors off the track are no better, seeing as jockeys are prone to develop arthritis at a relatively early age. Another major issue in terms of jockey health are eating disorders. Under the pressure to remain their racing weight a lot of jockeys turn to unhealthy means to maintain the standard on the scales.

Working As A Professional Jockey
Although it is a tough and often dangerous occupation, the life of a jockey can be extremely rewarding. Although only a very select few manage to race at a level that allows them to amass a serious fortune, a comfortable living can be made as a jockey. The job frequently involves travel, the constant excitement of the track and the competition will keep boredom at bay, and it is definitely one of the most active professions around.