By Natalie Voss
It feels like spring in Central Kentucky, as rain soaks the track at the Thoroughbred Center and the fields stubbornly remain green. The aisles of the North American Racing Academy’s Barn 30 are still bustling in the morning, but each week sees fewer and fewer students legging up on horses as the riding students finish up their finals and scatter across the country.
It’s been just under 12 months since a class of ten students began learning the basics—adjusting girths, tying knots in their reins, posting the trot. Some of them were lifelong riders, while others were preparing to hit the saddle for the first time.
Now, in late December, just five of them have made it through the final riding class in the program, having progressed from trotting serpentines in a big field behind the barns to breezing horses during training hours. It’s now impossible to distinguish the NARA students from the professionals on the track—they have all the same muscle, the same statuesque form with an intense focus between the horses’ ears, the same aerodynamic, snug-fitting gear. Their goal when I first met them a year ago was to learn how to fly on the back of a Thoroughbred, and now program coordinator Dixie Hayes is preparing them to leave the nest that is NARA.
Two of the original ten students completed their hands-on coursework early this fall and left to take full-time jobs as exercise riders: Kody Kellenberger, a former hunter/jumper rider, took a job with trainer Ken McPeek, while David Mussad moved to Ocala, Fla., to gain new experience riding 2-year-olds.
Mussad, 25, has been freelancing since the move and is having trouble getting enough mounts to make ends meet. He finds himself hitting the same speed bumps that many Millennials do at the start of their careers—employers seem to want someone with years of prior experience, which makes it hard to develop a resume. It’s the same problem that holds back many young jockeys at the track, especially on competitive circuits; their success depends to some extent on others, and that’s not an easy pill to swallow for a kid who got himself from San Diego to Kentucky by saving money for a year. He keeps in shape, works hard, and networks whenever he can, but Mussad’s sunny California attitude is getting harder for him to maintain as the hits just keep coming.
“Lately it’s just been hopping between different barns and I don’t really look forward to it as I used to,” Mussad said. “[Breaking 2-year-olds is] a whole new style of riding. If I had a solid three weeks, I think I would get it down, but it slows trainers down. People tell me they see the potential [in me], but don’t have the time.”
One thing that has shifted slightly in the past few months is Mussad’s motivation to keep going. He was initially drawn to the sport from the perspective of an athlete, and he still looks at it that way (as evidenced by sports sponsorships he has landed from Hammer Nutrition and RePlay XD cameras), but he has also learned how much he loves connecting with the horses.
“Once I started riding more horses, it was more, ‘How do I connect with this horse to get him to relax?’” he said. ”It’s kind of like playing a game. Each horse you hop on, it’s something different to figure out.”
The love of horses has taken Melissa Myszka, 22, places she never expected to go, too. Myszka, an aspiring trainer, joined the spring semester riding class mostly at the urging of friends in the jockey program, and said she never expected to spend a year riding alongside future race riders. Myszka is taller than her peers, and despite losing 30 pounds since January, suspects she’s still larger than most trainers would prefer for an exercise rider.
She has accepted that her last gallop on a racehorse likely came a few weeks ago aboard Blowback, a Tiznow gelding who joined the NARA program this year. Even though she’s looking forward to next semester’s classes, it’s hard not to look back.
“The first time I rode a Thoroughbred, I cried,” she said. “I never thought I’d be on the track galloping. There’s nothing like breezing a horse. It was amazing.”
Erin Steinbeck and Ricki Richards, both 21, also have one more semester of work ahead before they graduate. The riding program has given Steinbeck a new sense of purpose, as her part-time job this semester at Golden Veil Farm has taught her that she most enjoys working with young horses on the track.
“I really think I want to try out starting at a farm with the babies, the breaking and working them up till their first race,” said Steinbeck. “That’s the part I really enjoy, from the first day, seeing them with the saddle on, to getting them race fit and ready to go. Being part of that journey is really fun. I like to analyze them.”
Richards is facing another problem common to aspiring young riders — injuries. She came into the program in January recovering from a broken hand, which she aggravated during the semester, forcing her to spend time in the spring playing catch-up. She was keeping pace with her classmates until late in the fall, when she took a tough fall off the notorious Marble. The large, dark bay gelding proved a challenge for the more advanced students in the springtime, when he showed off a neat habit of bolting, galloping ever-faster until a sharp turn knocked a rider off, or until the horse got tired. This time, Marble aimed himself at the treeline in the gallop field before turning to run one way and pitching Richards the other. She hit her back so hard it took her two hours to stand on her own, though fortunately she did not suffer any nerve damage.
“I’ll be happy just as a gallop rider, honestly,” she said. “I know it’s kind of unreasonable having my mind set on just being a jockey.”She plans to get back on horses next semester and while she still hopes to become a jockey, she’s a little more prepared to take her career as it comes.
As last year’s riding students spread their wings, a new group of aspiring jockeys and exercise riders is preparing to mount up in January. Word of mouth and the success of NARA graduates with horsemanship degrees have swelled the incoming class from the usual 30 to 60 students. The cold and the challenge of the task will pick a few of them off, but those that remain will nurse dreams similar to these five riders—imagining the day when they, too, can feel the wind between the ears of a Thoroughbred on the training track.