Life as a 14-year-old jockey apprentice at France’s sole equestrian academy, Le Moulin N’Avon, starts off resembling a romantic period piece in “Lads and Jockeys,” set as it is to the strains of jazz and lit like a moody Parisian bar. But as the camera zooms in on slender, barely pubescent boys lugging around saddles as big as themselves or cleaning out stables at the crack of dawn, that dreamy feeling goes away. Quickly, you realize (just as the newly accepted students do) that everything that goes on here is about hard work, discipline and endless labor. And, in the end, there’s no fanfare and no rewards, or even the guarantee of a seat on a racehorse.
Those deemed unsuitable are filtered out at a fairly early stage and relegated to positions as caretaker and stable hand — a cruel fate for boys who had come with high hopes for a glorious future. Some of them can’t take it and pack up for home. Others may stay, but the misery on their faces is plain. The best out of the crop stay to work and aim for excellence whether they get to be on the saddle or not. “Lads and Jockeys” is a documentary, but director Benjamin Marquet pulls out the stops on noninvolvement — he obviously feels these lads are special, and he dotes on their words and expressions like a proud father. He not only loves them, he totally admires them.
The academy accepts 30 students each year over a three-year period and during that time, the boys live and breathe horses. Away from home and sleeping three to a room in a spartan dormitory, the first-year students are immediately recognizable for their anxiety and bad horsemanship; they can ride but are clueless about being with horses, which is why the instructors emphasize: “Everything you give to the horse comes back to you, good or bad.” This includes scrambling into jerseys and grabbing manure forks at 5 a.m. to clean out the stables, water the horses and clean the tracks. It includes polishing the saddles, rubbing down the horses and cleaning out manure when the day is done. On weekends they’re free to spend time in their rooms or go out on day excursions (on one occasion three good friends visit the Champs Elysee in Paris, and during term breaks there are dance parties and the like) but for the most part, it’s a life lived with, and for — horses. When asked why he chose to come to the academy, one sweet, bespectacled boy pauses for a long time and replies: “Ummm . . . I think it’s just that I love horses.”
Sadly, however, a passion for horses doesn’t translate to talent as a jockey. The instructors are pretty ruthless in their teaching methods: When they sense that a boy is scared, during a strenuous gallop for example, they order the boy to go faster and lift their bodies as far as possible from the saddles. “Come on, I could do this when I was your age!” is a standard phrase used to beat out hesitation and fear. The boys are made to learn that whatever they’re feeling, the horse will know it and either be negatively influenced, or try to take advantage of the rider. There’s always the nagging anxiety about injury too; a minor mistake can lead to a fatal accident, and in one scene from archival footage, a sickly boy lies on a bed with both legs broken, feebly insisting that when he’s well, he’ll go back on the track on his favorite horse.
Jockeys are athletes, but much of their performance relies on the performance (and physical or psychological conditions) of their horses. “You have to think like a horse, feel what they feel, know what they want!” teaches an instructor, and indeed, the best jockeys also become the best caretakers. Above all, “Lads and Jockeys” show how in the glamorous, monied world of racing horses there is an entire community dedicated to the grueling, demanding discipline of horsemanship.