"I've always wanted to be a jockey," Boyce said. "But I try not to get ahead of myself. I like to let things happen. My mom would have rather me just go to college and have a normal job, like any normal parent would. My parents and Dickie [Small] and Alex said I had to go to college. And I tried a couple different colleges and realized I didn't do well sitting behind a desk."
She got through MICA partially because she was up early riding horses for Small at Pimlico and determined that because she was already up, she might as well go to class. It was a perfect arrangement, unlike her time spent at North Carolina-Asheville. There she had found it difficult to concentrate without being near thoroughbreds.
As an apprentice, Boyce started with a 10-pound weight advantage called a "bug." Once she won five races, the weight benefit dropped to 7 pounds, and then 5 pounds once she had 40 wins. She kept the 5-pound deficit until officially becoming a full-fledged rider Dec. 5.
She said she endured a six-month struggle at the start of 2010 with few wins and few trainers willing to put the 5-foot-5 waif, who weighs 111 pounds in full tack — silks and boots and carrying her saddle — on a mount. And shy with strangers, Boyce said it was no easy task for her to approach trainers she didn't know around the stables to ask for rides.
"It was a little intimidating," Boyce said. "But an older jockey, Calixto Juarez, had told me, 'You need to learn how to work and talk to these people before you get an agent.' It was probably the best advice I got."
In fact, it was Juarez and her friend Diana Gillum, who rides steeplechase and works for Small, who finally pushed her into making the decision to go all-out in her effort to become a jockey after art school graduation.
"Calixto and Diana said I'm not getting any younger and that if I was going to do it, it was time," Boyce said.
Boyce, who has Jay Burtis making the contacts as her agent now, finally broke through with consistency at Colonial Downs during the summer, winning 13 races over the final 17 days of that stand. When she returned to Laurel Park, the hot streak continued. Riding with more regularity on better horses, she won the jockey title at the summer mini-meet at Laurel and was on her way.
It's not the career path her parents envisioned or one that might have been expected for a Garrison Forest girl who played lacrosse and polo and earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts, but trainer Holly Robinson said she isn't surprised.
"There is nothing about Forest that is usual," said Robinson, another trainer who gave Boyce a job galloping horses when she was still a student at Garrison Forest. "She has done everything her way. When she was at Garrison, she was getting up in the morning to go to work before she went to school. She didn't talk about wanting to be a jockey. She talked about wanting to learn how to gallop horses, and she was patient with it. She stayed with it longer than most, and I think that's why when she brings the horse back after a race she is able to tell you something useful about what you can do to make the horse better. She never makes excuses.
"But it's a very hard life she has chosen, and when I heard she was going to ride, I wasn't sure she'd make the sacrifices to do it. But she has."
While enmeshed in private school, Boyce was also very familiar with horses. Her grandfather, Gittings Boyce, was a trainer at Pimlico Race Course in the 1940s and 1950s; her father, Lambert Boyce, used to gallop horses; and her uncle, Timmy Boyce, runs sales for Fasig-Tipton, a thoroughbred auction company, in Texas.
"Horses were always part of my life," she said. "I knew in some way they would always be part of my life. But when I started working for Smithwick when I was 11, I didn't know I was going to be a jockey."
But with her family background and the experience she got working for Smithwick, Robinson and White, her arsenal of knowledge grew to the point where White said it all clicked with the strength of her character and her determination to make her the successful rider she has become.
"Where she started [at Smithwick's] was an excellent place to begin," White said. "Mikey made every kid do everything — groom the horses, muck out the stalls. It wasn't just get on the pony and ride. Forest always rode well. She has a gift, and she rode everything — horses, donkeys, mules — but she also worked really hard at it. We talked about what she had to do. Horse racing is one of the few sports where men and women compete against each other on equal footing. .
"Forest is very smart, sweet and kind, but you couldn't make it in this sport if you weren't tough and hard — and I mean that in a good way. She rides every day against eight other people, mostly men, who all want to win. It's a tough life. But she has done what she has had to do: work out, get fit, get strong and keep her weight at around 105. None of that is easy."