Have you ever dreamt about what it would be like to be an exercise rider–breezing through the early morning mist on a fresh thoroughbred, wind whipping through your hair? Lauren Nethery explains that it’s not quite so glamorous.
Top photo: Lauren aboard Mascereye
Lauren Nethery made it to the Final Four round of the EN Blogger Contest, and we’re happy to have her contributions to the site. Lauren currently manages a farm in Lexington, KY, and is presently enjoying bringing her handful of an OTTB back to the Intermediate ranks after eighteen months off from a hoof injury. She starts a lot of young horses under saddle, both for sport and for racing, teaches lessons, competes horses for clients, wrangles pot-bellied pigs, and trims miniature horse feet. On a Monday. Thanks to Lauren for writing, and thank you for reading. – Visionaire
Just beyond the broad white rails, a stunning stamp of equine excellence pranced forward from the corner of the schooling area, displaying the epitome of an extended trot. In the saddle, a figure in a garish red and yellow sweater sat quietly, one with his mount. I do not remember the exact date…too many hard knocks to the head. The horse must surely have been Pajama Game or Mystic Mike with Buck in the irons, though, so that dates things significantly. The morning was cool by Ocala standards. Horses grazed quietly in the fields that surround Wingspread Farm, swaddled in heavy weight turnout rugs complete with neck attachments, each looking ready to brave a month in The Arctic. Three abreast, we stood like statues, our faces and the visages of the two-year-old Thoroughbreds upon which we sat bathed in the pastel pink rays of the recently-risen sun. My reins were not knotted. My stirrups appeared to be preparing for a Third Level Dressage test. But I had managed to muster my most determined, assured, “of course I’ve done this before” look. Just days before, I had been contentedly slaving away from 6pm-6am at Peterson and Smith nursing ailing foals back to health, riding ponies in the afternoon, braiding horses at HITS on the weekends I wasn’t competing, and partying like it was going out of style. I must have slept at some point but certainly not often. I believed then and believe now that sleep is for the old and the dead.
I cannot recall what possessed me to answer that ad in Wire to Wire for an ‘experienced exercise rider needed immediately.’ I was neither experienced nor an exercise rider. At the time, young and reckless, I must have figured that competing at Intermediate and galloping sort of in control down to 3’9″ fences on a washed up Steeplechase horse qualified me to gallop a just-broke Thoroughbred much faster, with a bit less control, for a little bit of money. Silly, silly Lauren. So anyway, promising the voice on the other end of the phone that I had galloped in my summer home of New York for quite some time, had ‘a clock in my head’ (Clock? Where? Oh yes, of course), and could ‘hold a tough horse’ (Sure, give me a stud chain and a confined area and I’ll keep that sucker on the ground, no problem). I skipped out to my truck on what would be the first of thousands of dark, quiet, early mornings and embarked upon an adventure that would quench my thirst for…well…adventure, for many, many years to come.
Kim Depasquel, the trainer who was unlucky enough to fund my first gallop job, was infinitely patient, as were her other riders, and once I learned to sit quiet, shut up, and watch carefully, my working knowledge of how to ride a racehorse grew by leaps and bounds. Things happened quickly, as is the way of the racetrack life, and in short order I was spirited away to a neighboring track (complete with an aspiring rock star gallop boy that would cause way more trouble than he was worth) and then, shortly thereafter, back to New York and headfirst into riding racehorses to pay the bills. They say you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince. Well, you have to ride a lot of rats to EARN a good gallop job. I galloped in New York in the summer and Florida in the winter for several years, with stints in South Carolina, Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania punctuating my travels, as well as riding a few races here and there, before heading to Kentucky for the long haul. I have been in Lexington for four years now, mostly training instead of galloping these days, but still making the rounds at Keeneland during the spring meet for a handful of Grade I trainers that pay well, have nice horses, and treat their help kindly. Aspiring gallop girls and boys out there, make note: riding for good trainers on good horses for good money takes no less than a decade of experience. Be prepared. If you are still not deterred, just a few of the eccentricities of the racing life include:
- Unrelenting sexual harassment. Bear in mind that some of these trainers/jockeys/owners are rich/handsome/charming. But trouble nonetheless.
- Good horses, bad horses, lame horses, sour horses, crippled horses, fast horses, slow horses, strong horses, lazy horses, stone cold run away horses, and everything in between.
- All of the above horses are prone to falling down, lying down, flipping over, bucking, propping, wheeling, spinning, stopping, bolting, and, again, everything in between, sometimes all at the same time.
- Early, early mornings. Work begins as early as 4 am, in the dark, going just shy of Mach 1, sometimes on a track, sometimes in a field, with out-of-control horses and riders scattered strategically. If you have to be on a horse by 4 am, this means getting up no later than 3 am (unless you live in a tack room backside, it seems that apartments are never less than 30 minutes from tracks). However, most bars close around 2. That does leave just enough time to sober up before you throw a leg over. Waffle House helps. Plan accordingly.
- Bonus to early mornings: beautiful sunrises.
- Your weight will be scrutinized. Get used to it. Do not plan on being 5’5″, 150 lbs and getting a job. If you are curvy and proud of, good for you! Get another job. It is nonsensical and archaic and ridiculous but it is a fact of life.
- If you are a fair weather rider, stay in the show barns. Tornado warnings at Keeneland closing the Main Track? No problem, just go to the Training Track. Rain, sleet, hail, snow, fog, fire, natural disasters, and balmy sunshine. Be prepared to ride in all of it. The postman has nothing on exercise riders.
- If you think that competing at ANY level of ANY equestrian discipline qualifies you to gallop, you are sorely mistaken. A breezing racehorse travels between 900 and 950 meters per minute. Even when not breezing, 600-750 meters per minutes is the standard speed at which horses train day to day. All are faster than the 570 meters per minute that Advanced horses gallop around Rolex. Your ability to negotiate coffin complexes, flawlessly shoulder-in down the centerline, or sit chilly while a Rox Dene-in-the-making gets the six every time will not be valued and will likely even be mocked. The ONLY thing that matters is keeping one leg on either side of the horse and maintaining the correct speed.
- Dressing to fit in is imperative no matter how much you like those old Tailored Sportsman’s. Do not, under any circumstances, show up in breeches and field boots. Depending on your employer, there may or may not be a dress code. Full chaps are great during wet and cold weather. A vest, whip, and skull cap are compulsory. All gear should be color coordinated. At many Grade I barns, the whole riding staff must dress similarly (think dark jeans, clean boots, a tidy polo shirt, a non-descript jacket, and wraps or half chaps underneath your jeans). Looking the part really is half the battle.
If you are still absolutely focused on becoming an exercise rider, despite ample warning, proceed with caution, an opened mind, and a fearless heart. There are few things in the world as exhilarating as breezing thirty-five miles per hour four wide in the musky pre-dawn twilight, gunning for the smallest margin of an advantage. The surprisingly soft rhythm of hoof beats in the dirt, the deafening whoosh of wind in your ears, and the view from between two forward-pricked ears hell bent on crossing beneath the wire first are all incomparable benefits of the exercise riding life. The opportunities for travel, adventure, money, fame, and glory are numerous but do not come when called, they must be pursued and captured…much like Eventing, really.