The Science of Horse Racing: Why Do Jockeys Ride Like That?

November 18th, 2022

Currier and Ives once produced a color lithograph depicting one of the greatest match races of the late 19th century, as Salvator and Tenny battled down the stretch at old Monmouth Park. Both horses are shown in full stride, with jockeys “Snapper” Garrison and Isaac Murphy glaring at each other, whips flying. Noticeable is the exaggeration of their strides, front and rear legs at full extension; even more noticeable to modern racing fans would be the positions of the jockeys as well. Their long stirrups and nearly upright seat are a distinct contrast to the crouch that modern racing fans are most familiar with.

More than a century after Salvator and Tenny dueled for pride and prize, the race rider’s stance has gone from straight in the saddle to a balanced squat over the withers, a change that started with one legendary jockey and was soon adopted worldwide. This month’s Science of Horse Racing examines both how this change came about and why this demanding position works for both horse and rider.

Making the Change

In the Currier and Ives lithograph and other photographs and paintings from this era, jockeys sit on their mounts in a stance that echoes the carriage of a dressage rider: head high, back straight, and their bottoms (and much of their weight) in the saddle. A few years after this famous match race, jockeys Willie Simms and Tod Sloan were among the first seen countering this old-school style of riding with something radical for its time: shortened stirrups that enabled the rider to crouch at the withers, where a horse’s shoulder meets their neck, rather than sit up right, changing how horses carried the jockey’s weight.

Though both Sloan and Simms are credited with popularizing this riding position, it has its origins in both Native American horsemanship and the sprints that gave rise to Quarter Horse racing in the United States. Both riders and their peers likely rode this way off and on throughout the final decade of the 19th century, but, when both moved their tack to England, the style took off in popularity. Within a decade, most riders had adopted that way of riding, which soon became the standard for jockeys across the world.

The crouch asks the rider to balance their weight in shortened stirrups, with their bottom floating over the saddle, hands and reins sitting somewhere on the horse’s neck. Jockeys will hold a whip in either hand and switch that from side to side as needed. This asks a rider’s core and legs to do the work to maintain their posture essentially floating over the horse’s withers. This stance compacts the rider’s body and helps horses to run faster, but not for the reasons you may think.

Coupling Horse and Rider

On the surface, the crouch appears more aerodynamically advantageous than the upright position, as the rider’s head is below the horse’s, reducing drag. However, jockeys still sit high enough in the saddle that the aerodynamic benefit is minimal. Instead, the biggest difference comes not from the way air moves over horse and rider, but from the jockey’s ability to absorb the ups and downs of a horse’s stride. That stance allows the rider’s physical talents to complement that of the horse’s and create a team capable of going fast and far in pursuit of victory.

A horse weighs about 1,000 pounds and a jockey around 100, meaning that the tandem weighs about 1,100 pounds total, which the horse is carrying around a racetrack at full speed. By crouching over the withers, a jockey redistributes their weight, taking that burden off the horse and putting it on the rider’s legs instead. A horse can go faster with a rider on their back than before because they are not carrying that extra weight in the same way as they would were the rider sitting upright in the saddle.

Another way to think about the physical strategies at work here is to consider how you would move weight from place to place. Imagine you must take 20 pounds from your car to your home. Which is the most efficient way to move that: carrying it as one 20-pound load or split into two 10-pound weights? Though it seems less efficient to carry the two smaller ones, the demands on your body are reduced by distributing the weight more equally. The crouch is the same strategy: it redistributes the weight of the rider to decrease the amount of work the horse must do. This enables horses to run faster.

In fact, in those early years after this position was adopted, horses were 5% to 7% faster than those with jockeys riding upright. How is this possible? As they stride, horses are rising and falling vertically at a rate of 15 centimeters (about six inches) each time, while their riders are moving only six centimeters (just under 2.5 inches). Jockeys are essentially stationary in the saddle, constantly adjusting their legs to alleviate their burden on their mounts.

This asks the rider to do more than just sit and steer. Jockeys must exert energy to keep their bodies as stationary as possible while balancing on the balls of their feet and using hands and feet to encourage their mounts. A jockey’s heart rate can reach upwards of 190 beats per minute while riding in a position akin to that of downhill skiers navigating a slalom course. This requires each to be in top physical shape while also managing their weight and maintaining their skills. Pound for pound, these riders are among the fittest athletes in all of sports.

Finding an Edge

In a sport where wins and losses can come by the slimmest of margins, finding an edge over your competition can mean the difference between the winner’s circle and the long walk back to the barn. Over a century ago, riders like Simms and Sloan discovered one way to get a leg up on their competition and turned that into common practice. This also sent jockeys to another level as athletes, demanding more of the men and women who risk their health and safety each time they are boosted into the saddle.

The next time you stand trackside appreciating the horses dueling down the stretch, remember the advantages of that crouch and the difference it makes as you cash that winning ticket.