Willie Shoemaker - Early Challenges
Shoemaker has possessed a courageous spirit since birth. He was born prematurely, weighing just one pound, thirteen ounces, and wasn't expected to live through the night. His grandmother, Maudie Harris, took charge of the situation. She washed him, put him on a pillow in a shoebox, and set it on the open door of the oven to warm. When Shoemaker was four years old, his parents Ruby and Bebe Shoemaker divorced. He and Ruby went to live on the nearby Texas ranch where his grandparents were sharecroppers. It was there that Shoemaker introduced himself to riding by jumping on a pony without benefit of reins, saddle, or supervision. While picking cotton, he also began to think of his future: "I'll never pick up another hoe. There's gotta be a better way to make a living and I'm gonna find it," he said to his grandfather, according to a Sports Illustrated writer.
Both of Shoemaker's parents remarried, and he moved to El Monte, California with his father when he was ten. He had a perfect record competing as a boxer and wrestler in high school, but was frustrated by his small size. At just four feet, eleven inches and ninety-five pounds, Shoemaker would be small even for a jockey. At fifteen he quit school to muck out stalls and work with yearlings. Originally motivated to take the job by the need to work, more than an interest in riding, Shoemaker now considers the experience essential to his understanding of horses.