Horses are majestic, strong, wild, fast but they’re also tamable, loyal and social. They captivate the attention of women, men and children alike. In fact, tomorrow millions of people, (some who know everything about horses and some who (like me) know next to nothing about horses), will sit in front of their TVs and watch as twenty 3-year old colts* and their jockeys race 1¼ miles for a $2 million purse at the 143rd renewal of the Kentucky Derby. While the race is indiscriminate about the fans it attracts, it seems that it might be discriminate in its participants. Since its inaugural running in 1875 only six women have raced as jockeys and the first didn’t do so until 1970. So what’s the deal? Why are women jockeys such a rarity at the Derby and in horse racing in general?
The quick, uneducated guess might be that sexism has kept women out of horse racing, but a closer look shows the answer might not be so simple. First, while women don’t often take the position of jockey, they are heavily involved in the world of horses. As my friend and long time rider, Grace Van Dyke explains, women make up the vast majority of the riders in show jumping, dressage and eventing; those equestrian events we see in the Olympics. They just don’t seem to move over to jockeying en masse. “I’ve been riding for twenty-one years, in show jumping and eventing, and it’s mostly girls and women.”
Did you ever have an interest in riding as a jockey?
“No, I didn’t. I saw it as a girl and I still watch racing, but I never had an interest. Being a jockey is hard, dirty, very rough work. It’s a very demanding lifestyle. Before you ride in the big races like the Derby you have to ride in small claim races and local races for not a lot of money. You have to get really dirty in the stables to take care of the horses and you’re putting in lots of hours. You have some girls in the jumping world who have to work their way up on their own which is really hard, but it’s not as common as in the racing world. I think jumping and eventing sort of caters to the “Daddy’s Princess” scenario, so that might be what attracts more women as opposed to racing.”
Grace Van Dyke in competition.
From what I know about racing, jockeys need to be small and fairly lightweight. Since women tend to be smaller than men, wouldn’t you expect that owners would seek women to race for them?
“On it’s face, that makes sense, but here’s the thing jockeys not only have to be small, but they have to be very strong. Jockeys aren’t riding very tamed horses. They’re riding young, developing, unbroken horses and these things are very powerful. I wouldn’t guess that very petite women have very dense bones. Someone with a small frame and lesser bone density isn’t going to survive being thrown off a horse that well. So the jockey’s frame is very particular and you might not find very many women who fit that mold, small and strong with dense bones.”
I think Grace might be on to something. In the span of fourteen months from 2013 to 2014 four female jockeys died during horse races. Now that doesn’t mean that male jockeys don’t suffer serious or deadly injuries because they certainly do, but the peril of the sport may be too taxing for some. While the grueling lifestyle and the dangerous nature of the sport may explain why jockeying remains a male-dominated sport, it certainly doesn’t tell all of the story.
Before she retired, Rosie Napravnik, the last woman to race in the Kentucky Derby, shared in an interview with with 60 Minutes where she described, not only the sexism of racing fans, but of the owners and trainers who dictate who rides horses. In an industry dominated by men who don’t believe in the ability of women to excel as jockeys, Napravnik sees the only option for women to really gain footing, in the few instances where they’re given chances to race, is to win. “The only way that I deal with that is…to try to beat that person in a race.”
Rosie Napravnik in her first Preakness.
So it seems like a catch-22; win in a grueling, dangerous sport where you’re rarely given a chance to participate. But as Napravnik has proven, it can be done. Women have found success as jockeys and I have no doubt that we will continue to find our place in racing. The more chances we are given, the more success we will claim. While the story of the scarcity of female jockeys is clearly a complicated one, women are and always have been resilient and able to overcome complicated situations. Grace and Rosie are extensions of a long history of women who braved the dangers of riding to test the limits of their horses and themselves and more brave women have already fallen in line to follow them. Girls and women are working hard for places as female jockeys. I, for one, will keep watching to see them prove that they belong.