Jockey Fit

Donna Barton Brothers and Jeff Howard.

Story by Jeff Howard

Photos by Jillian Clark

Donna Barton Brothers won more than 1,100 horse races in her time as a jockey, and she comes from a family of riders. Needless to say, she’s learned a thing or two about fitness along the way. I recently sat down with Donna to talk about health and how she stays jockey fit.

As always when I’m around her, I got distracted by her size (she’s so tiny but so strong) and her beauty. When she smiles at you, you feel as if the sun has risen. We were only supposed to meet for 20 minutes but had so much fun that we spent the entire afternoon chatting and doing yoga together. Her generosity of her time and insight makes you realize why she is so loved and so successful.

Have you always been active?

Yes, most of the time (growing up), we lived where we had farmland. So a lot of the time physical activities were just riding horses around the pastures. Sometimes it was bailing hay. Sometimes it was gardening; a lot of times riding our bikes.

Growing up in a family of riders, did you play other sports?

I ran track when I was in the seventh grade and became manager of the track team. Then in eighth grade, I played basketball and volleyball, and I loved it. I continued to play all these sports in the ninth and tenth grade, then all the girls started to grow except for me! So all of a sudden, I’m not good in basketball. I really am good at volleyball but not at the net. This is how I took up riding and running.

Did you have a workout regimen when you where competing?

I started as a professional jockey when I was 21 years old, and when the day came for me to ride my first race, I was a natural 97 pounds. Obviously, weight wasn’t an issue. … I had galloped horses and exercised them in the morning for four and a half years before I ever rode my first race. I felt like I was fit to ride a horse and I was fit to ride a race, but to compete with the people I was competing against – and by that I mean namely the men – I realized within a month I was not as strong as I needed to be.

I started reading books on health and nutrition. I had to figure out what worked for me in comparison to my male counterparts. Once I learned how to teach my body to build muscle, I started lifting weights. I started working out with some of the other jockeys – Mike Smith, Shane Sellers, Ronnie Banks was an agent with him, too. One of the things I learned quickly was that I was as strong as (the men) were in the legs. But in my arms and shoulders … I had a lot of work to do, and so I spent a lot of time on deltoids. I spent a lot of time getting my arms and my back to be as strong as they needed to be.

My core was already strong, too, because riding horses does that. I have always run, as well. I would run two or three miles. I didn’t run (more than that) because if I did then I’d be breaking down the muscle that I just built up.

How do you train now to keep yourself fit?

On Mondays, I like to go to a class at Betsy’s (Hot Yoga); it’s vinyasa yin yoga. Or, I go to Pure Barre with Annie Locke. On Tuesdays, I do strength training for an hour with a personal fitness trainer. Wednesdays, I usually take a vinyasa class or a bikram class. Thursdays, I do either vinyasa, Bikram at Sweaty Buddha or a barre class. Friday, I work out at Baptist Health Milestone Wellness Center with Brenna – that’s only 30 minutes, but it’s an intense 30 minutes. I’ve got this cheesy little 12-minute run that I like to do. I sprint for a minute and then jog for a minute, then you sprint for a minute. You do this four times, so that’s eight minutes. And then you jog for (two to) three more minutes until your 12 minutes are finished. Saturdays, I do bikram yoga at Betsy’s Hot Yoga. Sunday is my day off, so I do nothing!

Can you tell us why you’ve incorporated a lot of yoga into your fitness schedule?

I wish more people would embrace (yoga). To be really good at it, you need to practice and become one with your body. When I say yoga, I mean vinyasa yoga or bikram yoga. I’m talking about a power, strength-building yoga. I always say that when somebody walks into a yoga room, they’re going to need to have three skills to be really good at yoga: They need to have strength, balance and flexibility. I’ve never met anybody who walked into a yoga room with all three of those things already, unless you’re a gymnast or professional athlete already.

When I walked into the yoga room three years ago … I had strength and I knew that, but my flexibility was awful and my balance was worse. I (have) had seven concussions and my balance wasn’t good, so I decided to start working on that pretty intensively. Now, three years later, I still have the same strength I walked in with, and I have really good balance and flexibility. Any sort of a practice that keeps you (working) with your one strength intact and then helps you build on the other two has to be good.

What fitness advice do you like to share with others?

Number one, it takes 30 days to create a habit, and we know that, but it takes 90 days to create a lifestyle. Whatever sort of commitment you make, make it to yourself for at least 90 days. Number two, consistency is key. I see a lot of people do two a day (workouts) because they missed two workouts in the last two days. I think two a days are counterproductive. I think that they just teach your body that sometimes there’s going to be an abundance, but sometimes there’s going to be starvation. Make a commitment to yourself to try 90 days of consistency with mindful movement, and do a little something every day. VT

  • Laura Melillo Barnum

    Thank you Jeff Howard for your article and shining the light on Donna! I’m always so proud when I watch her on national network tv! She’s intelligent, beautiful, articulate, quick-witted and extremely talented! Makes us all proud!
    -Laura Melillo Barnum