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Behind the Scenes – Life as a jockey with Oli Stammers

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

It's easy to sit at home and say "That was the jockey's fault. They should've done this or they should've done that". Very few of us have any experience riding a racehorse, and it’s easy to forget it’s not as simple as just sitting and pushing your arms back and forth. Racehorses are powerful animals and it takes a lot of strength and effort to get them to co-operate. It’s not just the physical stress that we must consider, either. The pressure put on jockeys from a young age by the opinions of others, including the public, is immense. Some jockeys handle it better than others, but when it comes to criticism and hate that is spread online, it takes a resilient mindset to just shrug that off and carry on. Naturally, whether you’re good at dealing with it or not, it’s always going to have some impact on you mentally, and being able to ride through that is the hardest part.

I wanted to get some inside information on this topic, and so this week I’m delighted to be joined by jockey Oli Stammers. Oli has provided me with some interesting answers about his life as a jockey, the difficulties faced in racing, and also an update following his recent fall at Chester.

First, though, let’s look at the general life of a jockey and the issues faced by jockeys on a daily basis.

How do jockeys usually get into riding?

Most jockeys get into horse riding at a young age having grown up with horses, but, of course, there is no specific route of entry. Following in the footsteps of family members or working with horses are perhaps the most common ways that jockeys begin their careers, which often progresses to pony racing and then horse racing at a later date.

When deciding to become a horse racing jockey, you must meet certain criteria. First, it is important to complete the Level 1 Foundation Course in Racehorse Care. Doing so allows you to work full time as a Racing Groom at a Trainer's Yard. Over time, should the trainer think you are competent enough, they will apply for you to attend a Jockey License Course. This is the biggest step in transitioning from a groom to a jockey and requires the two-week course to be completed. Upon completion, you will become an Apprentice Jockey (flat) or Conditional Jockey (jumps) at which stage they would consider you an amateur.

A category-A license allows you to ride against other Amateur Jockeys, whilst a Category-B licence allows you to ride against both Amateurs and Professionals. A jockey can, however, ride out their initial claim (weight allowance which decreases as the number of winners they ride goes up) and turn professional. At this stage, it's not just a case of riding the horses for fun, but you can earn a living from it. You receive a riding fee for every race and a percentage of any prize money. It is important, however, to have good horsemanship skills, so having a background with horses comes in handy.

What challenges do jockeys face on a day-to-day basis?

Jockeys face many challenges, both physically and mentally. One thing that many people cannot understand is just how exhausting it is being a jockey. Long hours, weight watching, and risk of injury are just a few challenges jockeys face during a career in the saddle.

Jockeys are on the go from early in the morning until late at night, travelling from course to course, which could be at different ends of the country. It is well known that jockeys are fit and the majority cope with it well, however, not having a substantial break all year round (barring an injury) is very demanding. You’ve got to remember that horses are strong animals, so controlling them takes a lot of upper body strength. Manoeuvring them on a racetrack, particularly in races that involve going around a bend or jumping hurdles, is physically demanding, and most jockeys have to do this numerous times every day. Over time, this takes its toll on the body, and having ample time to recuperate is necessary. Jockeys, however, live very hectic lives and mostly work 7 days a week year-round. This means that they have very little time for themselves, thus making it difficult to recuperate fully before riding again.

Jockeys navigating their horses over a fence at Bangor

Weight watching is perhaps the biggest challenge faced by jockeys. Constantly having to watch what they eat to meet different weights can have a serious impact on their health, often making them ill. It is important for jockeys to stick to a strict diet plan, ensuring that they remain disciplined and meet the required weight to ride said horses. These plans revolve mainly around what food you eat when, how much you eat, and also ensuring you take on enough fluids. Not sticking to these plans has often led to jockeys taking drastic measures to cut weight quickly to meet their target. This can then lead to them becoming poorly nourished. Some jockeys have also been caught using prohibited substances such as cocaine, which is widely known as an appetite suppressant. It's a high-intensity sport and is paramount that they stay fit and to the correct weight, but also that they do it properly. Maintaining such a light weight without the correct diet is dangerous, and many jockeys end up falling into this trap.

Of course, there is also the risk of injury. Every time a jockey gets into the saddle, they risk being injured, either by their own or another horse on the track. Although trained, some horses are wilder than others and there is always the risk of injury, particularly when in the stalls. It's not uncommon for horses to become agitated, so there is always the danger of a jockey potentially being kicked or thrown from their horse. Jockeys also have to observe other horses, particularly during the race, as a horse that is hanging badly or isn't jumping particularly well could easily cause an accident. Should a horse fall and interfere with another, the jockey will likely be sent flying from the saddle with the possibility of being trampled, or even another horse falling on top of them. These are just a few examples of where horse racing, like any sport, can be dangerous, and some of the physical challenges that jockeys face daily.

A horse (blue and burgundy stripes) jumping out to the right which could cause interference

As mentioned above, though, it's not just physically where jockeys may struggle. With horse racing being such a high-octane sport, naturally, a lot of pressure comes with it. Jockeys are essentially self-employed, so it is up to them to work hard and build a reputation to earn their rides. A period of poor rides, lack of winners, and thus a lack of opportunities can be devastating for jockeys. Not only does this lead to a lower income, but it can also cause one's mental health to deteriorate. Stress, anxiety, and depression are all factors known to be brought on by this type of lifestyle.

A survey by the charity ‘Racing Welfare’ last year found that almost 87% of jockeys tested had experienced some form of “stress, anxiety or depression” within the previous 12 months. These feelings of uncertainty often stem from:

· Financial insecurity - As mentioned above, jockeys are self-employed so they can’t guarantee how many rides they will have, or the quality of them, thus leading to worry about their income.

· Fear of injury - We spoke about the physical challenges above, but mentally preparing for a race given the frequency of jockey falls and injuries is also daunting.

· Isolation - Often it’s a case of me, myself, and I. Jockeys spend long periods alone, with nothing more than the thoughts in their head. Dealing with these thoughts and the idea of being alone is also very scary, with many jockeys struggling to ask for help.

· Maintaining the appearance of success - This makes it mentally demanding to be involved in a sport with such extreme highs and lows, uncertainty, and also the amount of criticism they as jockeys and the sport itself receive daily.

· Meeting expectations - Jockeys obviously have high expectations for themselves, but meeting those along with the expectations of trainers and owners, etc is difficult to manage, as they aren't just riding for themselves.

The pressure placed on the shoulders of jockeys is heavy. Dealing with your emotions and what’s going on in your head is one thing, but having to deal with the constant abuse and trolling online is another. Jockeys are more aware than anyone when they’ve done something wrong or aren’t riding well, but the added pressure from outsiders is extreme. Being able to brush off such remarks is difficult, and although jockeys are often portrayed as being made of steel, this isn’t necessarily the case. Luckily, the racing world is waking up to the idea of offering help and support to participants in any way possible.

Some initiatives and support services currently on offer include:

· Mental resilience training

· Mental health training through the leading charity ‘Sporting Chance’

· Free access to qualified Sports Psychologists

· Option to stay in rehabilitation facilities when necessary

· Confidential 24-hour helpline

· Talking therapies

· Jockey Matters films to promote and highlight the support available and increase awareness

This is an ever-growing list, and the BHA, along with the PJA, are working hard to provide the necessary support for jockeys in the modern-day.

So we’ve got an idea of the sort of lifestyle a jockey has on a day-to-day basis, and the challenges that they face, but let’s hear from an actual jockey on the matter.

Interview with Oli Stammers:

What is your background regarding becoming a jockey?

I started riding as soon as I could sit up and have had ponies all my life. I started pony racing when I was 11 and that’s when I caught the racing bug. Since then, I’ve never looked back. I rode pony races in England and Ireland and started by riding out at a few different yards in my half terms and holidays. I joined Mark Johnston’s when I was 16 and have been based there ever since.

What is the general life of a jockey like?

It's a lifestyle, not just a job. Being tall like myself, you are guided by your weight and what weights you have to hit in the next few days. I run every day, and even if I have a day off racing, I will still have to be strict with what I do. I love racing and riding, but the worst part probably has to be travelling. That's why you have to make the most of the good days, because when they come, you fully deserve them!

What sort of mental resilience and mindset must you have to make it as a jockey?

You have to be so tough mentally. The standard of riding is so high that you can’t have any weaknesses. You need to take the good with the bad and not let the bad affect your riding. We all make mistakes, but it’s about learning from them as quickly as possible and not dwelling on them that helps you through. Having a good support team around you is also very important, especially when things don’t go your way, as it means you don’t have to tackle everything by yourself. We are very lucky to have sports psychologists and counselling available behind the scenes should we need it. It is much easier, though, to deal with these issues when you are in good form and have plenty of rides.

Jockeys suffer many injuries throughout their careers. How do you deal with them? And how does it impact you mentally?

It’s very tough to take. I find it isn’t the physical pain that’s the worst, but the mental pain that you go through. Being out this time has been the hardest to take as things were just picking up for me, and I felt that all my hard work was beginning to pay off. I am lucky, though, that I have a great support network around me, and I know I will be back better than ever when given the green light to ride.

Can you describe the care and attention you have received following your recent fall?

I can’t remember much from the first week after my fall. I know they airlifted me from Chester to Aintree hospital and I spent the weekend there, then my mother came and took me home. Straight away after my fall, the Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jerry Hill was on the case and started putting things in place to start my recovery. I have now been in rehab in Newmarket’s Injured Jockeys Centre ‘Peter O'Sullivan House’ for a week and a half and the team here is incredible!

What is the general process following a fall to get back to riding fit again?

As soon as you are ready, the Injured Jockeys Fund will try to get you into one of the centers. There are three in the country, Peter O’Sullivan house in Newmarket, Jack Berry House in Malton, and Oaksey House in Lambourn. Once you are there, they start your recovery and it’s all about getting back fitter and stronger than ever. The experts and coaches in the centers are amazing and I can’t thank them all enough. Hopefully, it won't be too long until I’m back better than ever!

I think you'll all agree with me when I say that we may have thought that we had some idea of what jockeys go through, but hearing about experiences first-hand and looking at each aspect in detail really puts it into perspective. Like any sport, horse racing can be dangerous, but the sacrifices that jockeys have to make to pursue their career doing something that they love is a testament to their determination and love for the sport. I'd like to thank Oli for taking the time to answer those questions for me and wish him all the best with the remainder of his recovery and his rides for the rest of the season!

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