Skyler Spanabel is a young jockey riding in the mid-west. This is what she has been up to in her career so far:
FOTH: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
SS: I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, but I was raised in Michigan. All parts of Michigan.
FOTH: Did you come from a big or small family?
SS: I come from a big family consisting of my 2 brothers, 1 step brother, stepdad, and my mom.
FOTH: What sort of girl were you growing up? Were you a tomboy like most other female jockeys I have interviewed?
SS: I was for sure a tomboy. I would play with worms and in the mud. I wasn’t afraid to get down and dirty with the boys.
FOTH: Did you have a love for horses at a young age, or did that come later on?
SS: I have always loved horses. They have been in my life since I was born. My mother even rode with me in her stomach. I was literally born to love horses.
FOTH: At what point in your life did you decide you wanted to become a jockey? How did you go about it early on?
SS: I would always dress up as a jockey whenever I could, so I always knew it was my passion. I would ride my stable racehorses and practice galloping and getting low like a jock. I also used a 50 gallon barrel with a saddle strapped on to learn.
FOTH: What was your first job at the track? Did it feel natural getting up on a horse for the first time?
SS: My first job was hot walking horses for my stable, 4 Bel Farms. When I first got on a horse it felt like I was made for it. So freeing and relaxing, like a whole different world. It still feels that way today.
FOTH: Who helped you on early on as far as learning to ride? How long did you ride for before you took out your jockey license?
SS: My two mentors were my mother, Kelly Spanabel, and my trainer Ronny Houghton. I trained for 7 years before I started riding at 17.
FOTH: Tell me about your first race? At what track was it? How nervous were you in the jock’s room and going into the paddock for the first time?
SS: My first race my heart was racing. I was at Hazel Park. I was excited and nervous all in one. I wanted to go out and prove I belonged in this sport and that I would make it. In the jocks room, I was filled with butterflies. The other female jocks talked to me and coached me before I went out, which was great. Once I reached the paddock, I was way more excited and relaxed from the nerves. Again it all felt so right to be there.
FOTH: When the race was over, what was going through your head? Was it a big relief to get your first race out of the way?
SS: I was so proud of myself after the race. I didn’t care that I came in last, or what anyone thought. I was revved up and ready to ride another. I had so much adrenaline. I wouldn’t say it was a relief more like a wakeup call to just how exciting thoroughbred racing is when you are on the back of one.
FOTH: What did your parents think when you told them you wanted to become a jockey?
SS: They figured I would be. I always said I was going to be, always put in effort to learn, and it’s in my blood. How could I not?
FOTH: So tell me about your first win. At what track was it? Did you win by a lot, or in a photo? What was the feeling like, jogging the horse back to the winner’s circle?
SS: My first win was at Hazel Park again. I ended up winning by a nose to second place Melissa Zajac. It was such a great feeling. Coming down the stretch, me and Melissa were screaming and whipping and battling for victory. She put up a good fight, but I just made it before her. My trainer, who is also the outrider at Hazel Park, took me back to the winner’s circle, and it was a rush of relief. My first victory in the books. I remember it like it was yesterday.
FOTH: Did the jockeys get you good after the race, and did you know it was coming? What did they get you with?
SS: They got me really good even though I did know it was coming. I was covered in baby powder, buckets of water dumped on me, and even a hose! It took 2 days of washing to get rid of the baby powder.
FOTH: You have only been riding since 2016. Has being a jockey what you thought it was going to be, or has it been different? If it has been different, what are some of the things that you have been surprised about?
SS: It is a lot more tiring than I expected. The jockeys just make it look so easy. I knew it was hard, don’t get me wrong. The first time I lost my iron, oh boy, that took so much strength. I got my iron back, but afterwards my legs were jello. I was also surprised at how much everyone out there talks. They chit chat and when talking to me they always encourage me as they ride by. Saying things like "ride em, girl" or "let’s go, ride till the end." It’s so cool to hear them say those things.
FOTH: On a typical race day, take me through what you do.
SS: In the morning, I usually gallop, if I’m not driving to the track from Michigan. As time gets close to post, I stop eating and drink Gatorade, maybe a Cliff Bar. Once in the room, I change, and then stretch. I try to always stretch or get a massage from the PT trainer. Once in my silks, if I’m at Hawthorne, I get on the equicizer and practice. In the paddock, I greet the trainer and get the plan, get a leg up, and settle. Before I go in the gates, I pray from the safety of all the animals and people. Then the gates break.
FOTH: What are some things you like to do when you are doing non-horse racing related things?
SS: I love to travel. I try to hit all the coolest spots in the States and soon other countries. I also love to work out and run with my dogs. I’m mostly with the horses, so I don’t have much time to do other things besides stay fit.
FOTH: I know it is early in your career, but do you have any idea how long you would like to ride?
SS: I plan on becoming a nurse, but continuing to ride when I am not on duty. I will race until the doctor says no more and maybe a little after that too, ha ha.
FOTH: With your mom being a jockey, did you watch her races growing up a lot?
SS: I watched every one of her races, whether it was in person or on TV.
FOTH: When did you tell her you wanted to become a jockey?
SS: When I was 11.
FOTH: Have you ever had a chance to ride in the same race, or races, with her, and is she still riding these days?
SS: I have ridden many races with my mother. Yes, she still rides, and she still beats me, ha ha.
FOTH: I have never been to Hawthorne Park. Tell me a little bit about what the track is like.
SS: The track is very nice. I love that it’s a mile and an eighth track because I’m so used to the small five eighths track at Hazel Park. They also have an equiciizer, as mention earlier, and I really like that. It is so convenient. The people are also very encouraging. Overall a great place.
FOTH: Do you think jockeys as whole are well respected in the world of sports?
SS: I don’t think they are. People don’t see us as athletes or professionals, the same as the NBA players. Yet we are. We make it look too easy, so they think we only sit there. I am always having to tell people of what it’s really like to be a professional jockey. There are some who do respect us; I just wish more people would.
FOTH: Do you follow or like any other sports at all?
SS: I love to run track and 5ks. Running is yet again in my blood. What can I say, racings in my blood.
FOTH: If some young girl came up to you and said she wanted to become a jockey, what advice would you give?
SS: I would tell her it is a hard sport to make it. Training won’t be easy, and safety isn’t 100% guaranteed. But every second spent doing it, is worth it. So she should go for it and just be patient. Her time will come.
FOTH: Skyler, I am out of questions. Thumbs up for doing this interview. Do you have any last words to say?
SS: Thank you for the opportunity, and I think Maria has you figured out perfectly, Footboy, lol.