MEXICO CITY – Elisabeth Garrido stacks bales of hay into the shape of a horse, straps reins around a mock head and sets off on an imaginary but energetic ride, whipping the hay with a riding crop.
It's part of the do-it-yourself training for her dream: to be one of the few women ever to become a full-fledged jockey at Mexico's only major horse racetrack, and perhaps move north of the border as well.
"The hay is heavy but you have to be strong to ride a horse," said Garrido, who resorts to hay bales because she doesn't have a dummy horse to practice on.
The 27-year-old is one of two female apprentice jockeys now training to break into the historically male-dominated sport in Mexico, which hasn't seen a woman ride professionally since 2005.
Garrido is so committed to joining the approximately 200 registered jockeys here who are skilled enough to ride a half-ton thoroughbred at 55 mph that she moved in to the Hippodrome of the Americas in Mexico City.
Home is a dank and dim storage locker in the back of a stable where she has a small bed covered by a red and white blanket. On a shelf are photos of family and the horses she grew up riding on a ranch in nearby Puebla state.
Garrido's day starts at 5 a.m. when she and hundreds of other workers begin to gallop, wash and feed the 1,400 thoroughbreds and quarter horses. By noon, when the daily chores of track life are over and the mostly male staffers are resting on their cardboard covered cots, Garrido starts training.
She said there have been a few hecklers — "one or two chauvinistic men who have tried to denigrate me."
"They told me, 'You are a woman, you can't do it.' But that has helped motivate me to show them that if you want really want it, you can achieve it," she said.
Garrido and 22-year-old Jazmin Larios are following in the steps of Maria Villalobos, the first professional female jockey in Mexico. Villalobos began racing in 2001 and quit four years later to become a trainer.
Before any jockey can go from apprentice to professional in Mexico, they must either ride for a year or win 40 races.
Garrido, who weighs 108 pounds, won by two lengths in her debut last month and has since won another race and also finished second. Larios, who began racing in June, has competed in 10 races and has not yet won.
"The macho part of horse racing will soon be history in Mexico," said Ricardo Mar, the track's director. "Before, if a woman said they want to be a jockey, everybody would tell them they were crazy and that racing is for men."
Like most jockeys here, Garrido and Larios say they aspire to ride in the United States, where numerous female jockeys have been successful and a very good jockey can earn millions of dollars a year in purses. In comparison, a good jockey in Mexico earns around $30,000 a year.
Sofia Barandela, who has been working as a veterinarian and galloper at the track for two years, also hopes to race. She filed her paperwork last week to become an apprentice jockey, and Mar said at least two other women who currently work in the stables also want to become jockeys.
"In the next few months we will have four or five women jockeys and after that many more women will want to try racing," Mar said.