Professional horse jockey – a very difficult job, with big risks

Making a living as a horse jockey can be challenging, as the profession is highly competitive and physically demanding. Jockeys must maintain a low weight in order to be able to ride at the lower weights required for some horses.

This can lead to health problems, such as eating disorders. Additionally, injury risk is high in horse racing, both from falls during races and from the day-to-day training and care of the horses.

Even when successful, the income of jockeys can be highly variable, depending on the number of races they are able to ride in and the amount of prize money earned. Some jockeys are able to earn a good living, but many others struggle to make ends meet.

Tobey Maguire, who played the role of Red Pollard in the 2003 film “Seabiscuit,” did study for his role as a jockey. He trained with professional jockeys and horse trainers to prepare for the role, including spending time at Santa Anita racetrack in California to learn about the sport of horse racing and to work with the film’s equine stars.

Maguire also had to lose weight for the role, as jockeys typically maintain a low weight in order to be able to ride at the lower weights required for some horses. He did this by following a strict diet and exercise regimen and also went through a training program with the help of a personal trainer to develop the physical stamina and endurance required of a jockey.

In addition, he also had to learn how to ride a horse, as he had no prior experience riding. Maguire put in the effort to understand the mindset, the physical and emotional demands of the jockeys, which helped him to portray the role of Red Pollard, who was a complex character.

The process of preparing for the role was intense and required dedication, but it helped to make the portrayal of Red Pollard more authentic and believable. Now imagine how hard it’s like for a the real-life jockeys, even, and possibly especially for the ones at the top of the sport.

  • “Being a jockey is a hard life. It’s not a job; it’s a way of life. It’s hard on the body and it’s hard on the mind. But when you’re successful, there’s nothing like it. – Laffit Pincay Jr, retired American Jockey, who holds the world record for most career wins by a jockey.
  • “Riding is a very difficult art. No one can be a jockey for any length of time and not get hurt”– Willie Shoemaker, American Hall of Fame jockey who ranks among the all-time greats with over 8,800 wins

Pay & Benefits

Professional jockeys are typically considered independent contractors, rather than employees, which means that they are not typically entitled to benefits such as healthcare and retirement plans that are provided by an employer. However, there are some programs and organizations that have been established to provide support and assistance to jockeys.

For example:

  • The Jockeys’ Guild is a U.S-based organization that provides a variety of services to jockeys, including insurance coverage for on-track injuries, assistance with medical bills, and support for injured jockeys and their families.
  • Some racing organizations, such as the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, also provide coverage for certain medical expenses related to on-track injuries.
  • The Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund (PDJF) is a non-profit organization that provides financial assistance to jockeys who have been permanently disabled as a result of injuries sustained while riding.
  • The Jockeys’ Emergency Medical Fund (JEMF) provides medical and financial assistance to jockeys and jockey’s families for injuries sustained on the job.

In general, healthcare and retirement benefits for jockeys can be limited and it is important for them to take care of their own financial and medical protection. Jockeys might need to be proactive in seeking out options and assistance that are available, and will have to look out for their own best interests.

The income of jockeys can vary greatly depending on a number of factors, such as the number of races they are able to ride in, the amount of prize money earned, and the region where they work.

According to the Jockeys’ Guild, the average yearly income for a jockey in the United States is around $40,000, although this can be much higher for successful jockeys who are able to secure a high number of rides in major races. It’s important to note that the earning potential for jockeys also depend on the level of success and the region. For example, a jockey based in a major racing center like California or Kentucky might earn more than a jockey based in a smaller racing market.

As of 2021, the minimum wage for jockeys in the United States is set at around $165 per race. However, many jockeys receive a percentage of the purse or prize money earned by the horse they are riding, which can result in higher earnings.

It’s also worth noting that the earning potential of a jockey is not only limited to what they earn while racing. Some jockeys may also earn money through endorsements, sponsorships, and other opportunities. However, these are not guaranteed and they vary from jockey to jockey.

To summarize, the income of a jockey can vary greatly depending on their level of success and the region where they work. The average income for a jockey in the US is around $40,000 per year, but successful jockeys can earn much more than that, while some might make much less.

What does it take to make it at the highest levels?

Okay, let’s say you have dreams of being one of the 18 to 20 jockeys who get to ride in the Kentucky Derby every year. What steps are required?

Becoming a Kentucky Derby-winning jockey typically involves a combination of talent, hard work, and luck. The path to becoming a professional jockey can vary, but typically includes the following steps:

  1. Begin riding at a young age: Many successful jockeys start riding at a young age and gain experience through riding lessons, amateur horse shows, and working with racehorses.
  2. Learn the basics of horse racing: Jockeys need to have a good understanding of horse racing, including the rules of the sport, track conditions, and the different types of horse races.
  3. Get licensed: In order to compete in professional horse races, jockeys must be licensed by the state racing commission. To obtain a license, jockeys typically need to pass a physical examination and a test of their riding skills.
  4. Ride as an apprentice jockey: Apprentice jockeys typically begin their careers riding at smaller racetracks or in lower-level races. They ride with a weight allowance, and they have the chance to learn from experienced jockeys and trainers.
  5. Build a reputation and gain experience: As apprentice jockeys gain experience, they can start riding in more prestigious races and build a reputation among trainers and owners.
  6. Success and opportunities: Successful jockeys get opportunities to ride in major races, such as the Kentucky Derby, and can develop a loyal following of trainers, owners, and fans.

It’s important to note that becoming a successful jockey take a lot of time, hard work and dedication. It’s a very competitive field and not everyone will make it to the Kentucky Derby or even become a successful jockey.

Some of the most successful jockeys in history have earned substantial amounts of money through prize money, purses, and endorsements. However, becoming a successful jockey is a very competitive field, not everyone reaches the same level of fame and wealth.

A few examples of jockeys who have had a successful career and have been considered to have a high net worth include:

  • Willie Shoemaker who is widely considered one of the greatest jockeys of all time, with over 8,800 career wins and earnings in excess of $123 million.
  • Jerry Bailey who is widely considered one of the best jockeys of his generation, with over 5,300 career wins and earnings in excess of $296 million.
  • Pat Day, with over 8,800 career wins and earnings in excess of $298 million.
  • Laffit Pincay Jr, with over 9,500 career wins and earnings in excess of $237 million.

Many professional jockeys do have professional sports agents, who help them to negotiate contracts, secure race riding opportunities, and manage their income and financial affairs. Sports agents for jockeys work to connect their clients with trainers and owners, negotiate fees for race riding, and manage the jockeys’ career in general.

An agent will typically work with multiple jockeys at a time and will be responsible for finding them work, negotiating fees, and helping them to manage their careers. They also help with legal matters, such as contracts, and with personal and public relations.

Having a sports agent can be beneficial for jockeys as they often have a vast network of contacts in the horse racing industry and can help their clients navigate the competitive and fast-paced world of professional horse racing. They can also help the jockeys make better financial decisions and provide them with the necessary support to balance their professional and personal lives.

However, not all jockeys have sports agents and some jockeys manage their own careers. It’s up to the jockeys to decide what’s best for them, but having an agent can be useful for a lot of reasons, from securing job opportunities to managing their finances.

How much do jockeys weigh?

The ideal weight for a jockey varies depending on factors such as their height and body composition. In general, however, jockeys are expected to maintain a low weight in order to be able to ride at the lower weights required for some horses. The weight at which a jockey can comfortably and safely ride is known as their “riding weight.” The majority of jockeys typically weigh between 110 and 120 pounds.

The lower the weight the more horses will be available for them to race with, however the more dangerous it is for their health. Jockeys are recommended to have their weight monitored by professionals and in some cases, doctors will make sure the rider has a healthy weight and does not have any eating disorders.

It is important for jockeys to maintain healthy eating habits and make sure they’re getting enough calories to sustain the demanding physical activity.

Offseason for jockeys

There is generally not a defined “off-season” for jockeys, as horse racing takes place year-round and jockeys may compete in races at various racetracks throughout the year. However, the racing schedule does vary depending on the location and type of race track, and some jockeys will take time off or reduce their race riding schedule during certain months of the year.

In the United States, for example, horse racing takes place at various racetracks throughout the country, with the majority of major racetracks operating from spring through fall. There are a few major tracks that operate during the winter, but the schedule is more limited. Some jockeys might choose to take time off during the winter months, or to reduce the number of races they ride.

Different regions have different racing schedules. For example, in Europe and UK, most of the major horse racing events take place in the summer, thus the schedule may be more focused during those months, and some jockeys might take more time off during the winter.

In general, even when jockeys do take time off, they often continue to train and work with horses to stay in top physical condition and maintain their skills. Many jockeys also participate in off-season activities such as racing at other tracks, giving lessons or working with young horses.

It’s important to note that the horse racing schedule is subject to change depending on the situation, as the pandemics, economic situation or other factors might affect the schedule.


Life after being a jockey can be challenging, as the profession is physically demanding and often has a relatively short career span. Many jockeys retire from riding in their 30s or 40s, due to injury or simply because they are no longer able to maintain the necessary weight and fitness level to compete at a high level.

There are several career paths that former jockeys may pursue after their riding careers have ended. Some jockeys transition into training horses or working as an assistant trainer. Others may become horse racing commentators or analysts for television or radio. Some jockeys also choose to go into horse breeding, or become horse racing stewards or officials.

Others might take a different path, and use the skills and experiences from being a jockey, to pursue a different career path, such as becoming a personal trainer, or opening a business.

It’s important to note that the transition into a post-riding career can be difficult, especially if the jockey had a successful career, as the sport of horse racing can be a big part of their lives and identity. Some jockeys may have to adjust to not being in the spotlight, as well as to a significant reduction in income.

There are several studies and reports on the post-career problems that jockeys may face.

One study conducted by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) found that former jockeys have higher rates of certain health problems compared to the general population. The study found that former jockeys were more likely to suffer from chronic pain, particularly in the back, and to experience anxiety and depression. They also had a higher risk of developing osteoarthritis, and twice as likely to have a eating disorder, than the general population.

The Jockeys’ Guild has also highlighted the issue, in their website and with the help of doctors, they have also been actively trying to educate and inform jockeys about the risks of chronic pain, as well as providing jockeys with the tools they need to manage their pain and improve their overall well-being.

Another study by the Injured Jockeys Fund, found that former jockeys are at higher risk of developing back pain, hip and knee osteoarthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions that can be caused by their activities as a jockey.

In general, the studies indicate that the physically demanding nature of being a jockey can lead to a higher risk of certain health problems after their career.