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Dirty Jobs: Exercise Rider

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An exercise rider gets paid to gallop, jog, and breeze racehorses. They facilitate the daily exercise that these equine athletes need to get ready to race for the first time and to stay fit in between races. The rider also passes on crucial information to the trainer about the horse’s attitude and soundness on the track. Having a good exercise rider is absolutely crucial.

Being an exercise rider is one of the few jobs that require you to wear a helmet and safety vest. Exercise riders actually need to have a license to ride! Only strong, expert riders need apply.

The racehorses are not the only ones getting the exercise, gallop-people are lean, strong, and may even walk with a bow-legged swagger. These sinewy riders are light and tough. There is no giving up or giving in when you are getting paid to guide 1,200 pounds of raw power around the racetrack, dodging other horses and trying to maintain a steady and easy pace.

A beautiful morning to gallop at Saratoga Racecourse in New York.

A beautiful morning to gallop at Saratoga Racecourse in New York.

Although galloping horses can put good money in your pocket and get you that bikini body you have always wished for, it has it’s down sides. Average training hours are 5:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. and that’s rain, sleet, snow or shine. At the top of your game you may be at Del Mar Racetrack in sunny Southern California wearing a T-shirt, smelling the ocean air and sitting on a champion while thinking about the beach volleyball you’ll be playing later on. If you aren’t so lucky you may be at Turfway Park in Kentucky in 10 degree January weather  and trying to control a horse that can’t outrun your grandmother, your gloves are so thick you can barely hold the reins and your lips are turning blue.

Being cool and composed under pressure is paramount while galloping horses. Trainers often demand the horse train at a certain speed and it’s the rider’s job to execute this, sometimes down to the tenth of a second. Loose horses and unforeseen obstacles on the track can add safety and control aspects requiring riders to think on their feet and make split second decisions for the well being of themselves, their peers and the animal.

Del Mar makes a beautiful backdrop for morning training.

Del Mar makes a beautiful backdrop for morning training.

Racehorses don’t have self-preservation so the rider has to take care of the horse and becomes it’s guardian for the 20 odd minutes they are on their back. Most racehorses love to gallop and their competitive edge can get the best of them out on the track. A horse galloping too fast is likely to be injured from overexertion. Holding the horse down to a reasonable pace is one of the greatest challenges.

It’s a job with the greatest highs and the lowest lows. Riding a Kentucky Derby or Breeders’ Cup favorite can gain you relative fame, fortune and your own moment in the spotlight all while working with this tremendous athlete. That same horse is at risk for retirement, sale, and even catastrophic injury, leaving you heartbroken.

Exercise riders give young horses the education they need to become accomplished racehorses. Photo credit: Leah Everist

Exercise riders give young horses the education they need to become accomplished racehorses. Photo credit: Leah Everist

Galloping is dangerous. Fact. It’s not a matter of IF you get hurt on the job, it’s WHEN. Nobody on the track is invincible. Being relatively inexperienced or unfit to gallop puts a rider at higher risk of incident but even the most experienced and secure rider can be seriously injured.

To be an exercise rider you must love horses and adrenaline (it helps to be a morning person as well). Despite the negatives there is nothing more exhilarating than the sheer speed and power of a living, breathing 35 mile per hour joyride.

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