Although horse races have been run for more than five thousand years, today they remain primarily a men's sport. Female jockeys have had to fight, with their wits and their lawyers, for the right to ride. Insults as well as bricks have been hurled at them. Sometimes the young women have required police protection just to get to the starting gate. But with the arrival of each racing meet more and more female riders who know how to coax the best out of 1,200 pound, high-spirited animals are galloping into the winner's circle.
"I want this to be a lesson to all kids
everywhere. If the stable gate is closed, climb the fence."
--Julie Krone, champion jockey and first woman inducted into Racing's Hall of Fame
At 4' 10" and weighing barely 100
pounds, the teenage Julie Krone was small even by racing standards. But she
was tough. And determined to be a jockey.
Back in the 1970s her dream was met with a snort. Girls weren't strong enough to handle hot-blooded racehorses. They were okay as grooms, maybe, or riding the plodding creatures that led the racehorses to the track. But to set a girl on a little leather flap of a saddle and send her galloping at nearly forty miles per hour? That almost never happened.
Julie's mom, however, recognized the unquenchable spark in her daughter's eyes. She decided such dedication to horses deserved a chance. So she and Julie drove to a nearby track to seek entry-level jobs and, finding the gate locked, climbed the fence. They were hired as hot-walkers, work that meant covering miles a day on foot just leading horses around after exercise or baths. Julie had her eye on those horses' backs, though, and she took every opportunity to ask for a chance to ride. Before long she'd talked her way into exercising a few of the racehorses in the early morning hours. It wasn't actual racing but it was something.
A Special Connection
The trainers had to admit she had a way
with their horses. They watched admiringly as Julie spent time with each mount,
learning the horse's preferences. Did this one prefer to go for a warm-up trot
first or to just stand quietly? Once on the track should that one be allowed
a playful buck or two? Was the new horse head-shy? Anxious? Like the very best
of kindergarten teachers, Julie coddled and coaxed and encouraged, helping each
horse achieve its best.
Evidently the horses were happy with Julie on their backs because they seemed to run faster. Finally one trainer did the unthinkable: he asked her to ride his horse in a real race.
Of course Julie didn't win that first time. Such easy victories only happened in Hollywood movies. But she kept working at her skills. She reviewed race tapes, studied other jockeys, and made the stable rounds every day, persistently asking for more chances to ride in races. Gradually she began getting regular assignments. And she discovered she was living her dream.
One Tough Rider
Still, it wasn't easy. She wasn't exactly
welcomed by most of the other jockeys. Even while racing at dangerously fast
speeds, they often tried to hinder her ride. One kicked her foot out of the
stirrup. Another reached over and grabbed her reins. Many times a neighboring
jockey's whip "accidentally" struck her face, or worse, her horse's
face. But Julie gritted her teeth, hunkered close to her mount's neck and kept
riding. Her courage prompted one racing official to comment that she "was
tougher than any rider [he'd] ever seen." That included the boy jockeys.
Before long Julie was nosing ahead of them and winning races.
Big horses and excessive speed, however, lead to big crashes. On more than one occasion Julie was thrown to the ground and trampled by other horses. She broke her back, her ankle and her arm-in four places. She suffered concussions and a dislocated shoulder. After each recovery she found it scarier to climb back into the saddle but she accepted the dangers that accompanied her love. "You just ride 'til you fall off," she bravely schooled herself, "and then you ride 'til you fall off and then you ride 'til you fall off."
Galloping Into the History Books
In 1993, Julie Krone made racing history
when she rode an underrated bay horse named Colonial Affair to an amazing victory
in the Belmont Stakes, becoming the first female jockey to win one of America's
three prestigious Triple Crown races. (The Kentucky Derby and the Preakness
Stakes are the other two.) Asked to comment on her groundbreaking achievement,
she spoke as any hard-working champion does. "Whether you're a girl or
a boy or a Martian," she replied, "you still have to go out and prove
yourself every day."
Yet the world recognized what she'd accomplished and the honors poured in, including the ESPN award as Outstanding Female Athlete of 1993. CBS News named her to their top five Women of the Year list. An even bigger achievement was to follow. In 2000 Julie Krone became the first woman inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame. (As of 2012 there are still only two women included in the Hall.) It was at this ceremony that she encouraged others to follow in her tracks. "I want this to be a lesson to all kids everywhere," she said enthusiastically. "If the stable gate is closed, climb the fence!"
Now retired from racing, Julie Krone is still the most successful female jockey of all time, having earned more than $90 million in purses on her mounts.
Did you know ?
The only woman besides Julie Krone in Racing's Hall of Fame is horse trainer Janet Elliot. She specializes in training steeplechase horses and was inducted in 2009. (Steeplechase horses gallop over a long course of natural terrain that includes jumps.)
Although National Velvet (both the book written by Enid Bagnold and
the movie starring young Elizabeth Taylor) told the story of a girl winning
the famous Grand National steeplechase in England, in reality no female rider
has ever won in the more than 170 years the race has been run. In 1982 Geraldine
Rees became the first female jockey to even complete the grueling 4 ½
mile course that includes thirty fences.
Chapter 2: The Protectors
For too many years the horse has been viewed
as an unthinking and unfeeling servant of man. An implement that pulls loads.
An entertainment that bucks. A simple measure of wealth to be sold or traded
And more often than not it has been women who have stepped forward to protect horses from such mistreatment. Their crusades have been challenging, both physically and emotionally, but they've made the world a more humane place in which to live.
"My doctrine is this, that if we see
cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves
sharers in the guilt."
--Anna Sewell, horse welfare advocate and author of Black Beauty
She was too crippled from a childhood injury
to climb into a saddle. But a resolute, horse-loving woman in 19th C. England
managed to change the treatment of the country's workhorses forever.
Her name was Anna Sewell and she firmly believed what her Quaker family preached: that one should help those who suffered. In looking out her window onto the streets of England, Anna saw too many horses suffering. Carthorses struggled to pull impossibly heavy loads. Cab horses waited miserably in the summer's heat with no water or the winter winds with no blanket. Carriage horses gamely tried to trot in harnesses that buckled their heads and necks into fashionable yet uncomfortable positions. She had to do something. She had to change the way people viewed these innocent, hardworking creatures.
A Lesson from the Horse's Mouth
So she decided to write a book, and to
write it from the perspective of one fictional horse: Black Beauty. Through
Black Beauty's unfortunate experiences at the hands of man Anna hoped to create
in readers a "kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses".
She'd never before written a book but that didn't deter her; England's horses
needed her help.
It's not known what disease crippled Anna. For some reason her bones hadn't healed properly after a childhood fall and with each passing year she was growing weaker. She discovered that although she couldn't ride in a saddle she could drive a carriage. And so she nourished her love of horses by driving her father to and from the station and his work. People noticed that horses responded to her gentle cues and that Anna could guide them almost by voice alone, needing only a loose rein and certainly no whip.
Seven years passed while Anna worked steadily
on Black Beauty's story. Her disease progressed as well and eventually she was
forced to give up her carriage driving. The very act of writing became difficult.
Sometimes she could only lie on her bed, scribble a few paragraphs on a scrap
of paper and hand it to her mother to transcribe.
She knew her health was failing, suspected that her end was near. But she knew also that she just had to finish her book.
And she did. Black Beauty: the autobiography of a horse was published in 1877 and people loved it! Enthusiastic readers recommended it to their friends; animal welfare groups bought up great numbers of copies to distribute to grooms and drivers. Demand for the book was so high, in fact, that it was printed again and again, achieving a record as the 6th most popular book in the English language at the time.
A Change for the Good
Anna didn't live to see the many ways her book improved horses' lives. She died just a few months after its publication. But out on the streets of England horses were given additional rest. More buckets of water appeared. And the detestable fashion of buckling heads and necks into unnatural positions quickly fell out of favor.
Across the Atlantic Ocean and outside a library in Ansonia, Connecticut, an 11-foot tall granite fountain was erected in 1892 to honor Anna. The benefactor, Miss Caroline Stokes, a fellow horse lover, ordered that the fountain be designed "with water flowing constantly" and with a large trough on the street side for horses and a small basin on the opposite side for humans. The fountain still stands and the inscription reads "In Memorium-Anna Sewell-Author Of 'Black Beauty'". Around the globe at the top of the fountain are inscribed the words "Blessed are the merciful."
Did you know ?
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was originally founded in England in 1824 specifically to protect carriage horses from abuse.
Anna modeled Black Beauty's character on her brother's horse, and based Merrylegs, Beauty's friend, on her own pony.
Black Beauty has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and the horse's story has been retold in several movies as well as a television series.
"It seems that I have some value in the world of humane
work, and God knows, everyone who can contribute somewhat to alleviating the
harsh lot of animals in this world is badly needed."
--Velma "Wild Horse Annie" Johnston, tireless protector of America's mustangs
One October day in 1950, an American woman named Velma Johnston happened to be following a livestock truck down the road. She noticed it was dripping blood-a lot of blood. Unable to believe her eyes and with her stomach pitching, she followed the truck into a rest stop and got out for a closer look. Dozens of frightened horses, having been tortured nearly to death, were crammed into the truck. Those that could still stand stared miserably at her through the truck's slats. She assumed they were on their way to the slaughterhouse, a cruelly common fate for many horses of the era, but the brutality accompanying their end was just plain wrong. And where had these horses come from anyway? Velma, a lifelong horsewoman who'd had her own misfortunes, decided to do some investigating.
Charging into Battle
What she learned horrified her. On federal
lands all around her native Nevada, wild horses were being routinely-and secretly-rounded
up by truck and by airplane and butchered for dog food. Her initial protests
to area ranchers and land managers were brushed aside. The wild horses she was
campaigning to save were nothing more than "cockroaches" in need of
extermination. She should get back to her kitchen and mind her own business.
The men underestimated her. With her jaw firmly set, Velma decided then and there to make this ugly practice everyone's business.
Logging hours after work and on weekends, she wrote letter upon letter to government officials, protesting the inhumane treatment of America's wild horses. She took incriminating photos of the brutal round-ups so people could see how the innocent animals were choked, beaten and starved. And whenever she could, Velma crept out at night and risked her life by unlocking the captured mustangs, setting them free.
"Wild Horse Annie"
Velma's passion and persistence prompted
one government official to mockingly dub her "Wild Horse Annie." The
taunt didn't bother her. In fact, Velma chose to adopt the name and insisted
her friends also begin calling her Annie.
The danger of her mission wasn't so easily laughed off: A more sinister opponent said he'd like to see Velma end up in a case of dog food, the same fate as the slaughtered horses. She bravely ignored that threat, kept writing persuasive letters, knocking on doors and making pleading calls to legislators.
Year after year passed, though, and Velma's efforts went unrewarded. Wild horses continued to be swept up off the land and butchered, and slaughterhouse owners gleefully pocketed the easy money. The work began to wear on her. Not only was her adopted crusade emotionally discouraging, it was also physically demanding, made more so because she'd been a childhood victim of polio. The devastating disease and the body cast she'd been forced to wear to combat its effects had so disfigured her body that not a day passed without pain. Even riding her own horse was painful. Yet she continued fighting against it as hard as she fought for the horses, taking her battle all the way to Washington.
At long last, Congress passed a bill in 1959 that, at the very least, outlawed the use of motorized vehicles in the capture of wild horses. Called the "Wild Horse Annie Law," it was the very first time America's wild horses had received any sort of federal protection. Newspaper editors praised Velma's tireless efforts: "All thanks to the woman who was interested in injustice and decided to do something about it."
America's Young Horse Lovers Unite
Everyone thought that would be the end of it.
The war had been won. But Velma knew the new legislation didn't do nearly enough.
The horses needed real protection: laws that ensured their freedom and safe
lands on which to roam. So she continued to prod government officials, write
to animal welfare groups and speak at schools.
And this was where her message really caught fire: with horse-loving children and teens. Enraged by the ongoing slaughter of such beautiful creatures, kids across the nation began banding together to raise money to buy protected lands for the wild horses. They held bake sales and turned over their allowances. They sold bumper stickers that read "Save America's Wild Horses." And they inundated lawmakers with thousands of their own letters of protest. Finally, in 1971, an improved law called the "Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act" was passed by Congress. The Wall Street Journal acknowledged the role played by horse-loving kids, reporting, "Opposition vanishes as some kids gang up to save wild horses."
Velma didn't pause for so much as a triumphant breath. She continued her battle, sacrificing her own time and money, to gain further protection for America's wild horses. It was a battle that lasted over 25 years in all and one that made a lasting impact. Upon her death in 1977 she was widely regarded as "the single most potent woman to rise up out of the humane movement of this century."
Did you know ?
Popular author Marguerite Henry based her 1966 children's book Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West on Velma's life.
Velma's work continues today through the efforts of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros.
To help manage America's mustang population, the Bureau of Land
Management runs a National Wild Horse and Burro adoption program.
[more chapters to come!]