They’re up there in the dense fog. Circling. You can hear them, but you can’t see them. It’s a long migration from Canada to the rice fields of Rayne, La., but geese don’t rely on GPS.
Inside her modest kitchen, jockey Ashley Broussard is fixing breakfast for her 2-year-old son Bentley while going over a mental checklist for the day: exercise two horses at the Evangeline Downs Training Center, need talcum powder, check the oil in the car, take down the Christmas tree, out of cough medicine, call Mom, clothes in the dryer, macaroni and cheese for Bentley, leave a note for Uncle Cliff the baby sitter, ride five horses tonight at Delta Downs.
It’s not easy being a single parent, but like the geese, Broussard knows where she is going and how to get there.
The challenges of being a mother and maintaining her riding career have proved a steep climb full of surprises.
“In the beginning it was sleep deprivation,” Broussard admitted. “Having to wake up every three or four hours was a mental stress that was hard to overcome. My brain was totally consumed with different issues. I have always been around kids, but putting in a car seat was a new experience. I used to be in the gym all the time before I had Bentley, but now there is not a lot of time to go and lift weights.”
Broussard tipped the scales at 138 pounds during her pregnancy. She now weighs a fit 101.
“Chasing Bentley around keeps me in shape,” Broussard said with a laugh. “The everyday routine of working horses and riding puts you into a level of fitness. You have to have a strong core as well as back and legs. All of that translates into your arms, wrists, and shoulders so when you get on a really tough horse you find out what you got.”
The sharp turning, balance, and maneuverability against the clock of barrel racing contributed to Broussard’s skill as a jockey. The rodeo sport also revealed her tenacious urge to compete. As a teenager, she was ranked first in Louisiana for multiple years and was fifth in the world on two occasions.
Broussard was also raised with horse knowledge. Her father was a match-race jockey on the local bush tracks and became a longtime assistant to trainer Gene Norman. With a cowboy reputation of being able to handle the toughest horses, Clarence Broussard kept his daughter away from the racetrack but close to the farm and breaking babies.
“The animals are not strangers to me,” the 24-year-old Broussard said. “I’ve learned that every horse has its own personality and character. The trick is to persuade them to do things without being forceful or making them do it. When you treat them with kindness, it’s amazing how much smarter they are than humans.”
The gift of an exercise saddle from one of her father’s clients stimulated the dream of Broussard (then 16) to become a jockey. She sat down with her parents and told them she wanted to be a jockey, with a plan and the patience to carry it out. At 18, she got a job at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots with trainer Steve Asmussen. Then, in the spring of 2013, Asmussen needed an exercise rider at Keeneland, and he needed one immediately. It was time to put up or shut up.
“I still had a lot to learn, but it was time to take a jump,” Broussard said of her decision to pack her bags. “I figured I might not ever get another chance to work for a Hall of Fame trainer. I’ve never been one to do things half-assed. If I am going to do something, I want to go all the way, so I took a deep breath and took off.”
Far from home for the first time, Broussard stayed in a cheap hotel on the interstate and went to the track early each morning. She “manned up” and there was no relief. Some days she was legged up on a dozen horses. Her next milestone was a move to Churchill Downs to get serious about becoming a jockey. She secured a salaried position with trainer Kellyn Gorder, received gate approval from the stewards, and was given her jockey license. She won her first race at Ellis Park in August 2013. She had been galloping horses for more than three years.
“A lot of people nowadays that have never been around a racetrack decide one day that they want to be a jockey,” Broussard said. “Three weeks later they are in a race somewhere. I’m not sorry or apologizing for taking so long. I wanted to learn everything from the ground up.”
The 2014 fall/winter meet at Fair Grounds landed Broussard in the same jock’s room as the meet’s leading rider, Rosie Napravnik, who drilled Broussard like it was basic training for the Navy SEALS. Her learning curve shot through the roof, and Broussard went on to become the meet’s leading apprentice rider.
“First of all, she looked good on a horse,” Napravnik remembered. “Ashley is smart and level-headed, and she somehow manages to listen to the right people that can help. You can preach, preach, preach to some young riders, but Ashley listened and then went out on the racetrack and applied what she learned.”
Broussard’s sacrifice has paid off. Despite the detours of child birth and an accident (broken collarbone and busted ribs) that kept her away three months, her mounts have won more than $5 million in purses. Her 130 wins in 2016 ranked 110th of the jockeys’ list in North America. The multiple stakes-winning rider is currently second in the standings at Delta Downs. She has had too many riding triples at Evangeline Downs to count. She won honors as the Jockey’s Guild’s Jockey of the Week after winning six consecutive races for five different trainers last Dec. 14 at Delta Downs. Two weeks prior to that performance, Broussard booted home five winners on a single card at Delta.
Wherever Broussard’s internal compass tells her to go, she has the markings of a bright future, and son Bentley will be right there with her.
“I just want him to stay healthy and follow his dreams,” Broussard said. “My parents never pushed me in any certain direction. They let me find my own path and just made sure I was safe along the way. I do want him to see that nothing happens in one day. That you have to work for what you want. Horse racing has offered me many life lessons, and if that is the path he loves, then I will be right there to follow him.”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 18 edition of BloodHorse Magazine. To purchase a copy including the full version, visit www.bloodhorse.com/subscribe.