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Horse Jockeys: How Big Are They & Their Fight to Make Weight

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As I watched the horses gallop around the track, my mind began to wander. I started to think about the size of the jockeys and how they must feel being so small compared to the horse. I researched the jockey sizes and found that they are even smaller than I thought. This made me wonder about their diet and how they stay healthy.

On average, horse jockeys weigh between 108 to 118 pounds & their height is 4’10” to 5’6″. To ride a horse in a race, jockeys must meet a weight limit set by the racing commission. To make weight, jockeys often starve themselves and use diuretics to lose water weight. This can lead to muscle weakness and dehydration.

Jockeys have to meet minimum weight requirements to ensure all horses in a race are fairly matched. For riders, meeting the minimum standards and staying healthy is challenging.

Average Male (US)Average Male JockeyAverage Female (US)Average Female Jockey
Height5’9″5’2″5’4″5’2″
Weight200 lbs113 lbs170 lbs107 lbs
Picture of jockeys walking to their horses.

Why Can’t Jockeys Be Big?

When seeing the small size of some of the jockeys, I often wonder if they’re strong enough to handle a racehorse flying down the racetrack. This thought leads to another question, why can’t jockeys be big?

Racing commissions set a minimum weight for each horse in a race; it’s typically 115-116 pounds inclusive of tack; there are no minimum height requirements. However, it is near impossible for a tall person to meet the required weight and still have enough strength to ride and control their horse.

Before each race, horses are designated an amount of weight they must carry during the race. To ensure the correct amount, the Jockey must step on the scales and weigh with his gear in hand (including the saddle).

If the weight happens to be less than the designated amount the horse was assigned, the difference will be made up by thin lead weights in a special saddle cloth.

Once the race is over, all the jockeys must repeat the process. They will grab their riding gear and weigh. Weighing ensures that the horse carries the proper race during their run.

Racehorse trainers prefer a jockey weighs as close as possible to the assigned weight. They believe the weight is carried better by the horse when on a live body rather than extra weights in a bag.

I wrote an article all about Jockeys, including some interesting facts about why they dress the way they do. If you want to learn more about a jockey’s life, I suggest you check it out.

How do jockeys stay so light?

“Some riders, will all but saw their legs off to get within the limit.” Hall of Fame Jockey Eddie Arcaro.

Racehorse owners always want a lightweight jockey riding their horses, and Jockeys only make money when they ride. In 1929 riders were allowed to weigh as low as 95 pounds, including the equipment weight. Over the years, Jockeys have used various methods to reach their weight goals.

Weight loss methods used by horse jockeys

The following list is the most common weight loss methods used by Jockeys:

  • Flipping: is the term used by jockeys for vomiting. It was such a common practice that “flipping bowls” were installed in the Jockey rooms. Over the years, these bowls have been removed; however, the practice of “flipping” is still prevalent.
  • Skipping meals: The Chicago Rehabilitation Institute studied Jockeys’ health; they found that 69 percent of the jockeys skipped meals to lose weight.
  • Laxatives: These medications are generally used to help stimulate bowel movements. They’re a remedy for constipation and a popular weight loss tool. Different types of laxatives help induce bowel movements in different ways.
  • Dehydration: Jockeys use diuretics to lose water weight. Diuretics not only cause a person to ‘lose water,’ but they do so by various means, including inhibiting the kidney’s ability to reabsorb sodium. Jockeys also use saunas and hot baths to reduce water weight — the use of Laxis.
  • Excessive exercise: Jockeys will dress in rubber suits or heavy sweatsuits and run to lose weight quickly.
  • Smoking: The use of tobacco is used to curb the appetite
  • Diet Pills

Like other athletes who must meet strict weight requirements, Jockey put their bodies through an extreme challenge. Not only must they lose vast amounts of weight, but they must also stay healthy enough to ride and direct their horse. The lighter a rider is, the more horses he can ride.

Picture of a small jockey riding a racehorse.

Jockeys suffer serious health problems to make weight.

Jockeys’ battle to make weight leads to short and long-term health effects. Some adverse effects of their strive to lose weight are dental erosion, nutritional deficiencies, menstrual irregularity, low bone density, dehydration, and heat stress. Any of which can harm the rider on race day.

As we know, the average weight for a jockey is between 108-118lbs, and ordinary Jockeys stand between 4’10” and 5’6″, the average being 5’2″ tall.

If we look at a standard Height to Weight Ratio Chart, the average weight of a fit male, 5’2 is 137 lbs, but for a female of the same height, her fit weight is 125lbs. Jockeys having to cut weight to 105lbs is dangerously unhealthy.

Besides increasing the burden horses carry in a race, it makes sense to include more female jockeys because fit females naturally have less weight to lose to ride in a race.

Recently doctors developed a special diet and fitness regimen geared to help jockeys maintain a healthy weight. Although diet modifications provide benefits, the most effective adjustment is to increase the weight horses carry.

Jockey’s bones become fragile because of their constant dieting.

Long-term dietary abuse creates a lower bone density, making the likelihood of breaking a bone more probable compared to an average person of their size.

Falling from a horse six-foot-tall, running 45 miles per hour, is detrimental for an average person. Now, add to the equation that the rider is frail-boned and suffering from malnutrition, and you have a recipe for disaster.

The jockey’s extreme diets continue to plague their long-term health negatively. Forced vomiting alone leads to tooth erosion, cavities, gum problems, water retention, abdominal bloating, stomach distress, fluid loss with low potassium levels, irregular or lack of menstrual periods, swallowing difficulties, esophagus damage, and in some severe cases; rupture of the esophagus, and weakened rectal walls.

Lasix is a drug commonly used in racehorses to reduce fluids and control the amount of bleeding in the lungs. However, many jockeys use Laxis to remove that last bit of water weight required to make weight.

Picture of a young thoroughbred horse in training.

Jockeys use Lasix to drop weight.

Using laxatives can cause the kidneys to overwork, which leads to permanent kidney malfunctions. All of these health issues occur so that these athletes can lose a few extra pounds before their races.

Not only is the weight being lost, but their strength and protection weaken as well. Weight limits should be adjusted higher. A rider at a natural weight will retain more muscle and have denser bones.

Allowing higher weight limits will prevent many injuries and reduce the adverse long-term health effects caused by the extreme diet. During the 1920s and 1930s, jockeys were pushing their bodies beyond belief to make weight.

Hall of fame jockey Eddie Arcaro once stated
“Some riders will all but saw their legs off to get within the limit.” For some extraordinary stories about the lengths jockeys would go to lose weight, visit:
https://eating-disorders.org.uk/information/weight-control-among-jockeys/

The following is one story told in the above link:

“Many jockeys’ bodies could not function under the strain. To take off enough weight to ride a horse in Windsor, Canada, Sunny Greenberg steamed in a Turkish bath, guzzled Epsom salts mixed with jalap, took a boat from Detroit to Windsor, vomiting all the way- donned a rubber suit over several layers of heavy clothing, and ran around and around the track.

He staggered into the woods, collapsed, and either fell asleep or fainted. He awoke in a pool of sweat and tried to clear his disorientation by downing a half-ounce of whiskey.

Dragging himself to a scale, he found that he had suffered away 10.5 lbs in one night. It was all for naught. He was too weak to sit upright in the saddle by post-time. He gave someone else the mount and retired soon afterward.”

Why Are There Weight Restrictions for Jockeys?

The simple answer is the health of the horse. Owners and trainers throughout the years have argued a lighter jockey can have better control and lessen the burden on the horse.

They believe that increasing the rider’s weight would lead to more racehorse breakdowns. Specifically, they believe there would be more leg injuries from carrying heavier weights.

If you are interested in learning more about racehorse injuries, I wrote an article about the rate of horse deaths on race tracks you may find enlightening.

However, racehorses regularly train six days a week with heavier jockeys. Most exercise riders weigh around 150-160lbs, and there have been no negative results in health issues.

There are no sound studies that show that an increase in 5 lbs would cause damage to the racehorse. Steeplechase Jockeys weigh, on average, 135lbs. Steeplechase horses endure extreme pressure on their legs.

Not only are they running at full speed, but they are also jumping as well. If these thoroughbred athletes can handle the weight, a racehorse running on a flat should as well.

Have There Ever Been Any Tall Jockeys?

When we go to the racetrack, one tall jockey towers above the rest, but he’s likely only 5’7.” Seeing him during our most recent trip to the track made me wonder if there have ever been any really tall jockeys.

There have been some tall jockeys. In Australia, Stuart Brown was the tallest jockey in his country at nearly 6 feet, 3 inches. Although he was unusually tall and had to battle to meet the required weight, he still had a long and successful career.

Johnny Sellers was the tallest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby; he stood 5′ 7 and a quarter inches. The tallest male jockey still riding is Richard Hughes from the United Kingdom, who is 5’10” tall.

However, Louise Moeller from Denmark is the tallest jockey currently riding regardless of gender; she reaches the lofty height of 6’1″ and weighs only 112lbs.

But the title of the tallest jockey of all time goes to Manute Bol, formerly of the NBA. He stands 7-foot-7. He received a jockey’s license from the Indiana Horse Racing Commission to ride at Hoosier Park.

He used this as a way to raise funds and awareness of the plight of his home country of Sudan. However, I do not count Manute as a real jockey.

Picture of jockeys waiting to mount their horses for a race.

How much do Jockeys earn?

Most jockeys earn between $30,000.00 and $40,000.00 per year. But pay can be as little as $28 per race and as much as $124,000 for a triple crown competition. As you can tell, a Jockey has a vast range of earnings.

Are there any women jockeys?

Yes, Anna Lee Alred was the first woman in the United States to be awarded a Jockey License at the age of 18 in 1939. The first female jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby was Diane Crump in 1970.

Below is a YouTube video about horse racing jockeys.