Good horsemen agree that you don’t truly become a rider until you’ve fallen off a few times. At the North American Racing Academy, founder Chris McCarron tells his students that for jockeys it’s not “if” that first (or next) fall will come, it’s “when.” It’s also important, as the old saying goes, to get right back on the horse and keep moving if you can.
Toward the end of their first month of the program, the students in the Introduction to Race Riding class are already getting a taste of what it is to fall off — and to keep moving.
There aren’t many items in the syllabus that frighten the students, all of whom are gaining swagger by the day, but the “Learning How To Fall” bulletpoint has triggered butterflies for a couple of them.
“A lot of stuff that you learn from instinct, in panic situations, tends to be the right thing to do,” said NARA executive director Remi Bellocq, who describes his early riding experience as Thelwell pony stuff, with branches sticking out of his helmet at the end of the day. “I’m a big believer in allowing free range riding, all within the parameters of what we’re trying to teach them.”
Bellocq has just months to teach the skill sets and instincts that most riders hone over a few years, so he draws on his experience from jockey school in France. On a windy, mild day in late January, Bellocq takes the class to the grassy knoll alongside Barn 30. He instructs them to link their hands behind their backs and run downhill, hunched over at the waist. Then, he says, dive forward and roll. The idea is that the riders will learn to tuck their chins and arms, distributing the force of a fall across their bodies. They look like they feel a little silly, flailing around in the cold, but instructor and NARA graduate Kristina McManigell explains that internalizing this motion can save them a lot of pain later—if you come down on your shoulder, she says, you might avoid breaking your neck or hitting your head, and maybe get away with a broken collarbone instead.
Right. Because in this world, breaking a collarbone is getting off easy.
McManigell knows this too well. She retired at the age of 25 after sustaining a broken neck, broken collarbone, and six concussions. After her last injury, McManigell noticed problems with one hip and had to have it replaced. Doctors advised her that if she fell again, the ceramic inside her leg would remain intact, but the bone around it would shatter.
For many riders of sport horses who are coming off at lower speeds, time seems to slow down in the seconds before a fall; the brain detects a disruption of balance, implores the fingers to either hold tight or untangle, and if the rider is lucky, directs the body which way to duck. That means the seconds after impact may stand out as well, though—the discovery of skin ripped from hands or faces, the first burning pain of a broken bone, or the surprise of lung constriction after a body blow. McManigell said she never thought about any of that when she was working back from an injury—mostly because she couldn’t remember it.
“All I know is I was riding one minute, and the next I’m staring at the doctor’s face in the hospital, so it’s not a traumatic thing for me,” she said. “Even if it were, I don’t think I would feel any different. I think I would be, ‘Let me go. Let me get back on.’
“It’s not your job, it’s your life.”
Coming back to the life she knew was never a question. McManigell recovered from her injuries at her parents’ house in Illinois and would find herself watching TVG, yelling at the television when her former mounts crossed the wire first under another rider. The time away was bad enough, but by the time she returned, her horses had been snapped up by other riders. And as successful as she remained (McManigell was leading apprentice at Tampa Bay Downs in 2010), she couldn’t make up for lost time in the jockey standings.
For now, the instructors hope students will be dealing with little tumbles in the shedrow at a walk or a jog. In these situations, they’re told to hang onto the reins if they can, and aim to land on their feet—both considerations that become impractical in open areas and at high speeds.
In just a couple of weeks of class, the group has progressed to timed tack-up drills, confidently fastening buckles in under 10 minutes. They’ve begun jogging the horses now, alternating between crouching in the irons and “posting”—a controlled rise and sit pattern designed to mitigate the bouncing of the trot. For those who have ridden before, it’s easy (if a little painful) to get back into the up/down/up/down rhythm, which has about the frequency of an average car turn signal.
Courtney Comroe, 26, has advanced quickly enough to pilot Lady in the shedrow, but the two are having a disagreement. Lady likes a loose rein, and Comroe is trying to maintain the tension she needs to keep the horse from accelerating. As the pair turns the corner a few minutes into the exercise, Lady begins curling her neck and throwing a shoulder down and sideways. Comroe bobbles but stays centered…until Lady puts her weight into it.
Bellocq hears a scramble and turns just in time to see Comroe’s feet sailing through the air. She turns on the way down somehow and lands more or less on her feet, holding the reins, walking in step with Lady as if it was a planned dismount.
“Is that how you’re supposed to do it?” she asks Bellocq, laughing nervously. Within a few steps, he legs her back up onto the horse and they begin jogging again. Comroe is a little shaky at first, but after another round of Lady dropping her head, she catches her breath and sits cool with a more relaxed rein.
“She actually did what we talked about, out of instinct,” said Bellocq. It bodes well for her reflexes, but Bellocq believes the students’ fitness might play just as big a role in their ability to land on their feet. Tomorrow, Bellocq says, she will owe her classmates a box of clementines (instead of donuts, a no-no in jockey school) as the first rider to fall off.
The next week, the class meets at the North Lexington YMCA for their second fitness assessment. The group is full of energy, teasing and joking with each other about the upcoming tasks: For girls, a mile run in 9:30 minutes, two sets of 30 sit-ups in two minutes, two sets of 25 push-ups in two minutes, and three minutes of jump rope. For boys, the test is a mile in 7:30 minutes, two sets of 40 sit-ups in two minutes, two sets of 30 push-ups in two minutes, and three minutes of jump rope. Many have been working out together and coaching each other along.
Normally chatty, David Mussad is hanging back, hat pulled low, earbuds in. He’s got a lot on his mind.
A few days ago, Mussad spotted smoke in the sky while working at one of his part-time jobs at the Thoroughbred Center. Unsure what else to do, he went back in the barn, wondering where the blaze was. Then, NARA farm manager Francois Parisel came running in to tell him what he’d feared: the smoke was coming from the building that housed his apartment. Mussad ran around the front of the property in time to see flames shooting out of the roof, with everything he brought from San Diego inside.
Bellocq and NARA co-founder Chris McCarron pulled the school’s Equicizers out before the fire reached the classroom where they were located. The blaze took 63 firefighters and 32 units to put out. Since then, Mussad has been crashing on couches, scrambling to get back to his meal plan and workout schedule.
Mussad has been amazed at the way people have rushed to help him and his roommate Shana Triplett, a recent NARA graduate. Stevie McCarron, Chris’s daughter, launched a GoFundMe campaign with the goal of raising $1,000 to help the two replace their clothes and computers; at press time, it had generated nearly $4,000. Mussad’s friends started a fund for him in San Diego, and some trainers at the Center are helping him out. After a pep talk from his parents, he’s ready to begin putting it behind him.
“It is a bummer, but it is what it is. I’ve just got to deal with it. It’s going to make me stronger,” he said.
Bellocq hopes the incident won’t shake Mussad’s focus; if he doesn’t gain too much weight in muscle, Bellocq believes he has a chance at achieving his dream. In a way, he’s already overcome the odds.
“If you think about it, in the U.S., there’s only probably 2,000 licenses given out per year for exercise riders,” said Bellocq. “So whether they make it through the end or not, the fact that we’ve basically gotten all these kids—all ten—some of whom have never been on board a horse before in their lives, to the point where they’re jogging around the shedrow and they’re still alive…to me, that’s a heck of an accomplishment. They’ve done something millions of people in this country haven’t experienced, which is riding a racehorse.”
In a program rapidly approaching midterms in March, there isn’t much time to shrink from the work at hand. It’s time to get back in the saddle.