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Why are jockeys so small?

The tiniest athletes that aren’t gymnasts have to work hard to maintain weight. But it’s all to protect the health of the horse.

Jockey Jose Ortiz pumps his fist in the winner circle after riding Jack Christopher home to win the Pat Day Mile at Churchill Downs, on Kentucky Derby day.  By Pat McDonogh/Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Jockeys have some of the most dangerous jobs in all of sports. Controlling an animal weighing as much as half a ton that can run for minutes on end at over 30 miles per hour requires strength, smarts, and plenty of nerve.

Now imagine having to do it with a frame of just 116 pounds, which is the minimum weight for jockeys in the United States when they get on a horse to race. And that’s with the equipment included!

The reason jockeys are often so light is to protect the health of the horse. Thoroughbreds are very durable, but carrying too much weight can cause the horse unnecessary pain. And with humans getting larger every year, it can make for even more of a challenge to find talented tiny people willing to learn the profession that doesn’t pay particularly well.

In most cases in the US, a jockey can weigh between 108 to 118 pounds. In Canada the standard including equipment has been raised to a minimum of 118 pounds overall at one track, with the horse allowed to carry as much as 126 pounds depending on the race. A good rough estimate for the saddle and equipment is about seven pounds.

The weight loss methods of jockeys are varied, and some of them simply aren’t healthy. But finding the balance between protecting the animal and the health of the person riding it will continue to evolve.