Many jockeys work as independent contractors who ride for different barns, trainers, and owners. There are more than 110 racetracks located throughout the United States. Once a jockey is established and has won some races, he or she may obtain an agent, or can negotiate more lucrative contracts and races. Because there is a limited number of races and entrants to those races, openings for jockeys are rare.
Most jockeys begin their careers by riding whenever they can, sometimes by living with or working part time for a licensed owner or trainer who supervises young riders. The student must be willing to learn the business from the bottom up, including cleaning out stalls, caring for saddles, halters, bridles and other equipment, cooling out hot horses after they have been worked out, and performing any number of similar tasks.
The next step is to work at the job of exercising horses. Most jockeys get their start by working as horse exercisers for early morning workouts that include galloping, working, and cooling out horses. Horse exercisers warm up the horse, moving the horse through a variety of drills to raise the horse's temperature to a level where the chance of injury is lessened. This process is similar to the warm-up that a human athlete does to warm up his or her muscles before a strenuous workout. Exercisers also cool out the horse, gradually reducing the animal's heart rate by slowing down the horse to a slow walk, for example. This technique corresponds to the athlete who stretches his or her muscles following a workout.
Working as an exerciser also gets the potential jockey in good physical shape and develops his or her feel for a horse and its capabilities. Afterwards, the trainer works with the horse, and the exerciser either moves on to another horse or is able to watch and learn from the experienced jockey. As the exerciser gains experience, he or she moves on to a position as an apprentice rider. This training period usually takes one to three years.
When the owner or trainer feels the student is ready to ride in a race, he or she places the student under written contract to ride as an apprentice rider. The contract made between employer and apprentice jockey is binding throughout the world of horse racing. Both parties must live up to the conditions of the agreement, and the contract can only be voided by mutual consent or upon proof of serious grievance to the racing stewards.
Because the training weight is lower for apprentice riders, owners like to have them ride their horses early on, to clock fast times. This also helps the apprentice rider gain experience. Apprentice riders race for their trainer or owner, building up their reputations as jockeys until an agent notices them. With or without an agent, the apprentice rider tries to participate in as many races as possible. Agents usually notice young talents and try to sign them. A good agent can increase the number of mounts and help improve the young jockey's reputation among owners and trainers.
As a jockey begins to win races and establishes a reputation for solid riding and good instincts, opportunities will increase to ride the more renowned horses of prestigious owners. The better the horse, the better the jockey's chances for winning and the greater the increase in the jockey's earnings. Prize thoroughbreds race for millions of dollars, and the jockey who rides a horse to a first place finish in one of the major races will be sought after by both trainers and owners.
There are only about 1,500 jockeys riding in the United States, and of that number, only a few will reach the position of independence that comes with championship-caliber riding. Moderate success, however, can still be very rewarding for the individual who truly loves the sport.
Some jockeys may move into the field of training or, eventually, when they can no longer ride, buy a horse and train it for someone else to ride. Owning and managing a thoroughbred racehorse is expensive, however; without partners or outside funds, this can be difficult. Other jockeys may become consultants or open riding schools.
Volunteer or find a part-time job at a stable or horse-related nonprofit organization to spend as much time as possible around horses. Some successful jockeys say they even slept in the barn during their careers. The more you know and understand horses, the more likely you are to become a jockey.
Exercise and stay in shape; jockeys must be physically fit.
Try to find a professional jockey or trainer who would be interested in mentoring you. If you're truly passionate about the sport and have the desire to succeed, learning from a professional is one of the best ways to break into racing.