The mood in the Thoroughbred Center’s Barn 30, like in many college libraries and coffee shops in mid-March, is decidedly more anxious than usual. It’s the second day of midterms for the nine students in the North American Racing Academy, and none of them is feeling especially confident.
Eighty hours of class time, and many more hours of gym time have boiled down to two days of testing—a fitness assessment and a riding assessment. Everyone in the class passed the fitness assessment (two miles in 16-18 minutes, 100-150 sit-ups, 60-90 push-ups, and 60-second wall sits and planks), most of them with flying colors. The riding assessment has everyone a little nervous, as does a new dynamic in the barn.
Dixie Hayes, program coordinator and instructor at NARA, has come in to grade the students on the riding portion. Hayes worked her way up through shedrows and on breeding farms and doesn’t cut her students any slack. She’s quick with the critique and slow with compliments, and she expects to give directions just once. She admits she thinks of herself as the “bad cop” to executive director Remi Bellocq’s “good cop,” knocking off points for a few minutes’ tardiness or a fleeting moment of pants making contact with the saddle seat during the two-point phase.
“I got the nickname of ‘the drill sergeant’ and I live up to it,” she said. “I want to push them. I want to see that they exceed my expectations and I’m not going to let those expectations waiver for any reason.”
Each phase of the test is pass/fail. She posts herself at one corner of the shedrow with an assistant at the other. If either sees a mistake, they trumpet out, “Fail!” indicating an abrupt end to that section of the test. One by one, disappointed students wince after an error and turn their horses into the center aisle, awaiting clearance to move on to the next section. Part of the challenge is the first phase, where they have to ride a pattern of turns and gait changes from memory, like a mini dressage test.
“Ninety percent of exercise riding is accuracy,” said Bellocq. “If they go out and they’re supposed to work a horse in :50 and they come back in :46, it’s not going to be pass/fail. They’re not going to work for that guy again.”
As each student works through the phases with increasingly nervous expressions, their classmates cheer them on from the ground. Instead of issuing chilly critiques, they’re more like the bench at a basketball game, offering high fives and hugs for a job well done.
Hayes said it’s typical to see the group work together in the early stage, then become competitive as they progress into tougher classes.
“We’re all a big family. We are,” said student Ricki Richards. “It’s nice, because before we got in the Academy I always thought we were all going to compete against each other. It helps a lot, knowing you have someone next to you suffering the same thing you have to.”
“And reminding you, ‘Hey in the future, you are competition, so I’m going to push you and make sure you get there,’” added Erin Steinbeck, who’s standing beside Richards watching the proceedings.
“It’ll make it fun. No hard feelings if we beat each other [in the real world],” said Richards.
“And, ‘I’ll get you next time,’” finished Steinbeck.
That peer support proves helpful. Melissa Myzska, in the throes of a shin splint, spends the last few laps of her test in determined tears. A rattled Courtney Comroe starts on the wrong foot, having been held up in traffic and missing her start time. Ray Holassie leaves his reins too loose, and his horse breaks into a forbidden canter stride. Natasha Armstrong spends most of her test kicking her horse, desperate to avoid an unscheduled walk. Kody Kellenberger loses track of his pattern and breaks stride. He’s one of the class’s top candidates to become a professional jockey, according to Bellocq, and it’s clear he feels he should have done better.
“Not my day,” he said. “I picked up a new job and I’ve gotten 12 hours of sleep in the past four days so I think the lack of sleep played a big factor.”
All the students are juggling jobs in addition to a full class load with several other exams this week. By the time Thursday’s class closes, they’re both exhausted and relieved.
“I think overall, they did very well,” said Hayes. “Some of them maybe didn’t do as well as we’d hoped, but I think this will be a good lesson for a couple of them that maybe were starting to think, ‘This is easy, I’ve got this, I don’t need to work hard at this,’ realizing that they’re going to have to work hard in order to continue to succeed at this.
“The next step will be to get them out of the shedrow, out in the fields and see what they can do when they’ve basically got a loose horse under them. In here, they don’t realize how much assistance is being provided with steering, with control.”
The day after midterms opens gray and drizzly—the perfect weather for a first canter in the open field, according to Bellocq, as the ground is soft but not slick, in case a rider takes a tumble. By the end of a class like this, each student has come off at least once, the instructors say, and usually more. It’s just a few in a series of falls they’ve been trained to expect in their careers. On the walk from the barn to the gallop field on the back part of the Thoroughbred Center, it’s clear even the most impatient in the group are trying to calculate the odds that today is their day.
“What’s the pool up to, as to how many loose ones come running back across the field?” Bellocq asks farm manager Francois Parisel jokingly. “We were out here one day with Chris [McCarron] and four loose ones come running back at us and he just turns around and goes, ‘I quit.’”
As Hayes predicted, the group finds it hard to steer out once they reach the open field without confines of the shedrow to guide them. The group begins a warm-up trot around the perimeter of the field behind instructor Kristina McManigell.
Bellocq is in the process of explaining proper braking techniques when we hear a shout from the other side of the hill. Through what’s now a steady rain, we see Comroe and Gus streaking across the field at a strong gallop.
In her panic, Comroe has risen from the stirrups and let her reins go loose, hands tucked under her body and useless. She’s shouting at Gus in an attempt to stop him, and he does not seem interested in complying. As the two of them round the corner and hurtle toward us, it’s apparent that through her fright, she’s also grinning from ear to ear. She doesn’t hear Bellocq’s instruction to pull Gus into a circle, and barrels toward a fenceline, where Gus drifts left and sends her sailing, coming down on her face and somersaulting through the mud.
As Bellocq, Armstrong, and Richards rush over to her, another shout comes from the back of the field. Kristina Renn and Polo are flying, Renn leaning into the right rein to no avail. Having watched her stablemate’s routine, Polo deposits Renn a few feet from Comroe and takes off behind Gus for the barn.
“The horses are getting stronger faster than we are,” said Natasha Armstrong, who has been grounded recovering from a broken rib. “Everyone’s going to fall off at some point. Nothing you can do about it, just hold on tighter.”
Both students walk away streaked with mud from face to boots, but intact. Comroe has the start of a black eye darkening on her cheek. Renn is unfazed; Comroe seems a little less sure of herself.
“You know what, I galloped for the first time,” said Comroe back at Gus’s stall afterward. She gives him thoughtful ear scratches. “I’m actually kind of surprised I stayed on as long as I did. I think I can [shake it off for next time].”
Bellocq finishes the class with some trot circles and serpentines for the remaining riders, all of whom have gone quiet and drawn. There’s one student who isn’t letting the crashes put her off, though.
“It gets me excited. My adrenaline starts pumping, because I remember what it felt like to be on a horse like that,” said Richards, who grew up racing horses through the Cascade Mountains. She has been grounded on and off this semester with a broken wrist. “I knew for a long time this is what I wanted. I can’t wait to do it, because I love it. It’s not scary.”
That’s the attitude they need to do this job, McManigell said; the freedom of taking flight on the back of a Thoroughbred has to be bigger than the fear of falling.
“The biggest test, I’ve found, is that when you go that speed, that’s when you find out if you’re made for it or if you’re not,” said McManigell. “You either love it, you love it, or you’re absolutely scared to death and you don’t want anything to do with it.
“It’s a 1,200-pound animal. Sometimes you’re not going to be in control, but you can’t be fazed by that in the least … sometimes there’s nothing you can do.”