Fitness Tips From Horse Racing Jockeys

Author: Lindsay Griffin

It might not seem like it at first, but horse racing jockeys- as short and skinny as they look- are actually some of the strongest athletes in the world.

They are, by nature of their assignments, required to keep a lightweight. But because their assignment also requires taking charge of an animal that typically weighs about 1000 pounds more than they do, every single ounce of a jockey’s weight has to be pure muscle.

How do they do it? How do the 10 top winning Kentucky Derby jockeys of all time keep the fat away while still maintaining enough of a caloric intake to preserve their strength and mental acuity? Here are some of the fitness tips practiced by champion jockeys.

What It Takes To Be A Jockey

Before any jockey training officially begins, those people wishing to pilot racehorses should assess whether they meet the requirements for the job.

Many top-level races, such as the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, require horses to carry a maximum of 126 pounds (57.15 kilograms)- and that is including the horse’s saddle and other equipment, which typically weighs 5-7 pounds (2.27-3.18 kilograms). In most daily races or stakes races with other conditions (such as races restricted to fillies or two-year-olds), the requirement is even lighter. If someone cannot safely achieve and maintain that weight, they should pursue another equine discipline or career.

There are no official height restrictions for being a jockey- the famed jockey Lester Piggot was said to have been five feet eight inches throughout his storied career- but as added height tends to lead to added weight, most jockeys are fairly short. Many do not grow taller than five feet in height.

In addition to meeting those physical requirements and, in some cases, passing a fitness test, jockeys must have quick reflexes for their own safety. At least 154 jockeys have died at United States race tracks since 1940, and while life-saving safety measures have improved outcomes for jockeys in modern times, at least 13 of those aforementioned deaths have occurred since 2000.

The Diet

Obviously, to keep excess weight at a minimum, jockeys must carefully keep track of what they eat. 

Champion jockey Victor Espinoza, who is most known for riding American Pharoah to Triple Crown victory in 2015, keeps a riding weight of 113 pounds. To maintain this weight while keeping his athleticism, he eats only one small meal per day. He also avoids alcohol, instead relying on water for his hydration needs.

As to what foods should go into that small meal, that can vary. Espinoza, notably, does not have any particular food restrictions aside from portion size. However, many jockeys opt for foods high in protein, such as eggs and fish, which will make them feel fuller as well as help in building muscle.

The Exercise

The biggest tip for working out like a jockey? Don’t skip leg day.

Unlike most who go horseback riding, jockeys ride with short stirrups, balancing their weight over their horse’s withers and lower neck. Jockeys must have the strength and control in their leg muscles to hold this crouching position for the entire race while the animal underneath them careens forward at speeds of forty miles per hour or more. Exercises focusing on the quad muscles, glutes, and adductors are especially important, as are balance exercises.

Cardiovascular health and endurance are also important. Not only does it keep weight down, but it also allows a jockey to have enough energy to effectively urge their mount on down the lane during races. Burpees and lunges are popular cardiovascular exercises among jockeys, as well as running and cycling when the time is available.