Why you should care
Some kids may dream of riding horses. Others have to do it or go to bed without supper.
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Dressed in bright reds, greens and yellows, they line up atop their brown horses in a seafoam-green corral. The course is dusty and a bit run-down, but the riders’ focus is laser sharp. The whistle blows, the gates fling open and they’re off, hurtling around the track at extreme speeds. This isn’t just any horse race, and these aren’t just any jockeys. Rather, they’re very young jockeys. On the Indonesian island of Sumbawa,
child jockeys as young as 4 years old race horses at speeds of up to 80 kilometers per hour.
Compare that with a racing-loving nation like Australia, where age 16 is the “absolute youngest” you can get a jockey license, says Des O’Keeffe, general manager of the Australian Jockeys’ Association. Races on Sumbawa include gambling, even though betting is technically illegal in the largely Muslim country. Child labor is also illegal, but the young jockeys make up to $7 a race. That might sound like a lot of soda pop, but the winners can earn their bosses — the horse owners — significantly more, between $300 and $500 a race. Usually, the grand prize stays in the hands of the jockey’s overlord, but sometimes the child will receive a cut, or a gift like a motorcycle, TV or … refrigerator. Beating Santa to the chase on that last one.
If you’re thinking this must be a niche event, you’re wrong. Indra Nienhaus, a documentary filmmaker who spent time following the races, saw one popular race with around 400 horses and 70 child jockeys. The kids compete in approximately 10 competitions a year, each of which lasts from seven to 10 days. Training sessions take place a couple of times a weekend. All of which adds up, in addition to detracting from school — the kids can miss up to 100 days a year. Here, riding is a way of life, and horse racing, known locally as pacoa jara, is all many of the children have ever known, says Nienhaus. Horses are a cultural cornerstone on the islands and are used for transportation and farming.
Although there are some similarities to races in, say, the U.S. or Australia, the stakes are a lot higher in an already dangerous profession. The child jockeys ride bareback and barefoot, their only safety equipment a leather helmet lined with local sponges. Not surprisingly, accidents occur almost every race, and there are a lot of broken bones, says Nienhaus. Just last year, a boy fell and was trampled to death. Jeff Johnston, a former jockey who’s a regional manager for the U.S. Jockeys’ Guild, says that even in the regulated U.S., the sport is “certainly” dangerous, so much so that an ambulance follows the jockeys and their steeds along the course.
In Sumbawa, breeders have begun to import Thoroughbreds for crossbreeding with the local stock. Here’s hoping one day they’ll import some safety measures too.