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Verve People
December 16, 2016

Rupa Singh Is The First Indian Woman To Become A Jockey

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photograph by Sukil & Khushboo

“The most important thing is that you have to forget that you are a woman and show that you are no less than a man.”

Her father’s desire to see his daughter become the first Indian female jockey spurred the young Rupa Singh to consider taking up the profession — his dream was inspired by the Italian Silva Storai who settled in India in 1978 and became India’s first professional female jockey. For Singh, who had grown up surrounded by tales of the stable, it was a relatively easy choice to make.

Born in Chennai, Singh, a Rajput by birth, was inspired by her grandfather D. Ugam Singh Rathore, who used to train horses in the British army. Her father, U. Narpat Singh Rathore, was a jockey, as was her brother N. Ravinder Singh Rathore (now a trainer). The feisty 34-year-old recalls, “I have been riding horses since I was three. I learnt it from my grandfather. I used to sit with him on the horse and go early in the morning to riding school. My grandfather taught me how to hold the reins properly and to maintain the correct posture on the horse, something that is very important for a rider.”

Her biggest learnings came from her father. She admits, “I was more scared of him than of the horses. He was a strict trainer. He taught me how to sit on and control race horses, especially the ill-tempered ones, which is difficult to do.”

Despite her love for the animal, Singh did not think that she would become a professional jockey even though she participated in many races where she was often the only female participant. She says, “Since there was no Indian lady jockey in the country at that time, my father worked hard to help me become one. But, even he did not think that I would go so far in my life. My mother gets a little worried about the risks I am likely to incur, but she does not express it.”

Over the years, Singh has endured her share of falls and injuries, but riding a horse continues to infuse her with an emotion. “People look at me with surprise and I always get special attention. When they say that I have set an example for women in India, I feel that all my hard work has paid off. Whenever a horse throws me off, or the speed at which they run registers, I realise their actual strength. I get a bit scared at times, but am thrilled to be riding such powerful animals.”

The ‘First Lady’ in the field found that she was not accepted with open arms. Singh admits, “No trainer or horse owner likes to put a girl on their horse as they feel we are mentally and physically weaker than the boys. So, at the outset, I was given average horses to ride when I raced. But I did not let myself feel low. It was in fact after I had won around 50 races that I started getting better rides and was able to improve my performance.”

Being pitched against men, who are physically stronger, posed a Herculean challenge to Singh. But that did not daunt her. She says, “I had the ambition of riding better than male jockeys and showing them that females can do much better than them. Initially, I found it difficult but I never gave up. I knew that one has to prove one’s talent. I would get up at the crack of dawn and work from 5.30 to 9.30 a.m. every day. I went through the same training that the boys go through to become a jockey. The most important thing is that you have to forget that you are a woman and show that you are no less than a man. Only then can you survive in this profession.”

Her first race is naturally one that she will never forget. She recalls, “The horse’s name was Power Point. I was nervous, but finished fourth among a field of 18 horses. After the race, my horse turned around and I fell down. That’s when I realised that things were not going to be easy at all.”

After she won around 80 races, she had the opportunity to join one of the leading stables in India, the late Dr M. A. M. Ramaswamy stable. That experience, she adds, stood her in good stead. “I trained under Robert Foley and I was able to ride the best horses for the first time in my life.”

When the going gets tough, her belief in hard work and god keeps her going. She emphasises, “I have had accidents and fractures. Such incidents are normal; as long as you remain on top of the horse, it is okay. Sometimes the thought of giving up comes to mind, but my passion powers me on.” The girl who has won about 720 national and international races and seven championships, admits to a flutter of nervousness before the start of any race. “There is an element of uncertainty because we don’t know how the horse is going to perform.”

Considering herself lucky to have been able to participate in races abroad and naturally ecstatic at winning the Ladies World Championship in Poland, Singh admits that she would like to see more girls taking up this profession. She underlines, “I feel in India, parents do not want their daughters to get into this field because of the danger involved. I would say take it up; don’t consider yourself weaker than men. You can do better than them, because it is not physical but mental strength that ultimately matters.”

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