In the Monkey Seat

Look at an eighteenth-century painting of English horse racing and you will see a jockey riding far back on the horse and sitting upright, perpendicular to the ground, "a point of calm stability as the horse stretched its legs out ahead and behind." A dandy, a big spender, a ladies' man, an Indiana boy who became the most famous jockey in the United States and Great Britain and helped transform horse racing into a wildly popular spectator sport, Tod Sloan (1874-1933) invented a better way to sit a horse, as John Dizikes, Ph.D. '64, explains in Yankee Doodle Dandy: The Life and Times of Tod Sloan (Yale University Press, $22.50).

 

Tod Sloan in a 'forward crouch' (illustration from book)
From the book

What did Tod Sloan do to convert a mediocre career into a stellar one? He adopted a new style of riding, the "forward crouch." As he recalled it years later, what he did and how he did it merged into one dramatic moment. One day he and another jockey were galloping their horses together when his horse started to bolt; in trying to regain control Tod climbed up out of the saddle and onto the horse's neck. His fellow jockey laughed at the strange sight, and "I laughed louder than he." On reflection Tod realized that "when I was doing that neck crouch, the horse's stride seemed to be freer and that it was easier for me too.

"I put two and two together and thought there must be something in it, and I began to think it out, trying all sorts of experiments on horses at home. The 'crouch seat,' or the 'monkey mount,' or the thousand and one other ways it has been described, was the result. Then the time came when I determined to put it into practice. But I couldn't screw up enough courage the first time I had a chance. I kept putting it off. At last, though, I did really spring it on them. Everybody laughed. They thought I had turned comedian. But I was too cocksure to be discouraged. I was certain that I was on the right track. I persevered, and at last I began to win races!"

The forward crouch was a remarkably simple innovation. The jockey, with short stirrups and short reins, moved up until he was high on the horse's withers, the highest part of the back, between the shoulder blades, leaning forward on the neck of the horse, looking down over its head. It is how all jockeys ride today and have done for a century. It is as difficult for us to imagine another way of riding as it was for many of Sloan's contemporaries to imagine any alternative to what they had known.

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