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The Weight of the World - Mental Health in Horse Racing

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

Sportsmen and women are naturally competitive, and in horse racing it’s no different. But there is much more to riding a horse than simply trying to win, things that go on in the background that jockeys don't want you to know or talk about, things that have a significant impact on themselves, their well-being and their mental health. As sportspeople, naturally they struggle with losing. They go out to win, and winning is the only option, so what happens when they lose? Jockey Charlie Poste said, "Every jockey is portrayed as being made of iron. It's almost like tough people don't admit to their problems or, if they do, it might affect their careers". Mental Health is something that needs to be spoken about more freely in the modern-day, in every situation including sports.

Life as a jockey is stressful. You have to remember that being a jockey you are essentially self-employed, it is up to you to work hard and build up a reputation that earns you rides. A lack of rides means less pay, less good rides make you less desirable and it's all downhill from there. Winning races is the best way to ensure that you’re ‘in demand’, but if you’re not getting the good rides then naturally it’s harder to win, it’s a vicious cycle. Jockeys also work long hours, for the most part, they're working 7 days a week all year round with a break between seasons that lasts all of a few days. They also have to drive hundreds of miles every day up and down the country, even if there is only one mount waiting for them at the end of it.

Horse racing is a very ‘full-on’ high-octane sport so you can see why an abundance of factors may weigh heavily on the mind of a jockey. You’re not simply riding for yourself when you get on a horse; you’re also riding for those associated with it (trainer, owner and stable staff) which could lead to more opportunities for the jockey in the future. Not meeting expectations not only means a lack of rides but also having to deal with the abuse and pressure you could receive from punters and trainers as a result (particularly when riding an odds-on favourite). This can lead to high levels of stress which not every person is fully equipped to deal with.

American jockey Victor Espinoza celebrating his win

Mental Health issues often, unfortunately, lead to some form of drug or alcohol abuse, a decline in physical health and well-being and sometimes even a loss of life. A jockey must keep their weight down at an acceptable level to be considered to ride certain horses, which often results in skipping meals causing them to become poorly nourished. Cocaine is widely known as an appetite suppressant, and often a jockey has been known to take it to nullify the effects of hunger. This therefore could lead to a growing addiction, eventually resulting in a riding ban if tested and found to be positive. More on this later…

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. Researchers at Liverpool John Moores University, who conducted the survey, found that the major concerns among jockeys were that their line of work is a lonely one (an arm around the shoulder isn’t always readily available), financially precarious (dependent on form and other factors affecting racing at that time) and relentless in its demands. As with rockstars, the peaks and troughs are extreme, and jockeys are forced to deal with irregular doses of dopamine and adrenaline when riding. In the mind of the jockey, they want to stay ‘high’ for as long as possible without facing the lows, and so they will often go to any length to achieve this.

A recent example of a jockey under fire is Philip Prince, a flat jockey who has had his license suspended for 6 months in February this year. Prince failed a drug test following a ride at Wolverhampton in November 2020 and was found to be 56 times the limit. He’s since admitted to taking cocaine 3-4 times a week for the past year or so as a “pick-me-up” and is now on a 6-week rehabilitation course. Many of you might also remember the controversy surrounding champion jockey Oisin Murphy at a similar time last year where traces of the substance were found in his system, subsequently leading to him being handed a 3-month ban. Northern Irish jockey Nathan Evans was another given a ban after testing positive for cocaine at York.

Following these developments, the BHA is planning to implement a pilot scheme in the spring for instant drug testing. This process involves taking a sample of saliva following a race, providing instant results and flagging up if any forms other traces are found in the jockeys system. Further testing will then take place once the jockey has been stood down in the form of blood and urine samples. Paul Struthers, Chief Executive Officer of the Professional Jockeys Association, said "Addiction of any sort is a terrible thing and we are there to support any of our members who need it. It is equally important that we do everything we can to protect all our members. We need a system that discourages poor decision-making in the first place, reduces the chance of addiction developing and encourages people to come forward for support at an earlier stage. One aspect of such a system is more testing and it is for this reason that the PJA has been calling for more testing of jockeys for several years. We've been working closely with the BHA on the proposed pilot of saliva testing and very much welcome it".

Oisin Murphy who was also banned for having drugs in his system

We must remember however that not everyone deals with things in the same way, and so further support is needed for those who are too scared to speak out. Jumps jockey James Banks took his own life in February 2020 aged just 36, and Grand National-winning jockey Liam Treadwell 5 months later in July, aged just 34. Both men had admitted to having mental health struggles in the past, but perhaps a lack of knowledge and support from within the sport, unfortunately, lead to the most tragic outcome.

Banks took his own life 2 years after quitting racing as a jockey and becoming head lad for trainer James Arnold. Through a series of unfortunate events he lost his home and went bankrupt. He admitted at the time that he was having suicidal thoughts, and a letter that he left spoke of how he could no longer cope having not sought help before it was too late. Treadwell, most well-known for winning the Grand National on 100-1 shot Mon Mome in 2009, also suffered from mental health issues. He like many jockeys suffered several falls in his career, leading to numerous concussions and other head injuries. Speaking in 2018, he said, "The pressures were the big thing and wanting to please people, of course, you can't please everyone”. He noted that his worries became such that he would have sleepless nights thinking about the favourite that he was riding the next day and the idea of failure became all too much. Both men struggled with the pressure of being a jockey and the idea of speaking out, so more must be done to not only support those who need help but also to get people to open up about their problems.

Following the death of Liam Treadwell, jockey Charlie Poste met with some other riders to see if anything could be improved. A number of the riders commented on how refreshing it was to be restricted to riding at one meeting per day (post-lockdown rules) and that pre-Covid, suggesting such a thing would’ve caused outrage. Poste added “Whenever there is racing, people will never take a day off and not for their mental wellbeing. It's a good suggestion to train the valets and the inner sanctum too. Riders are becoming better at identifying people who are struggling, the more you can talk, the less of a taboo it is. This shouldn't be seen as a stigma, it is part of your fitness, your mental fitness." The PJA has since set-up a telephone line that offers jockeys 24/7 access to counsellors should they wish to contact, and is further stressing the importance of positive mental health through educational videos, the website and also WhatsApp groups/messages. Thus far, over 100 riders have received some form of support provided by the PJA and their campaign.

Having the facilities to let someone talk and getting them to talk are two very different things. You can have all of the initiatives and services in the world, but getting someone who is in a dark place to open up is something you cannot physically force. All that can be done is to influence, as the PJA are doing, to make the correct decisions and relay the message that speaking out and asking for help is not weak, and can make a real difference.

The final example I would like to discuss is now retired jockey Kevin Tobin. Tobin first made a name for himself after winning the Hands & Heels series for young jockeys but was brought down by comments on his riding style. These sorts of comments coupled with a string of poor rides, losing rides in big races and being told off by trainers all add up, and often it’s difficult to see a way out. Tobin said, "I wasn't able to cope with my feelings. Racing constantly compares one person against another, one horse against another. I would do that, day in, day out. It made me angry, lonely and frustrated. I was just staring into a black hole with no clue how to get out." Luckily he quit whilst he could, got counselling and got his life back on track, but as we know, this isn't always the case. At one time towards the end of his career, he was booked for a ride at Catterick racecourse where he went intending to fall and get injured. Instead, Tobin finished fifth. He said "I didn't necessarily want to die but I wanted the circle to stop, I decided that suicide was an option. I was putting my plan together about how I was going to die that night." Luckily a chance call from his father stopped him, not only saving his life but changing it for the better.

Mental health as we have discussed comes in many different forms, and there is no one simple way of dealing with it. Slowly but surely it seems the racing world amongst other sports are waking up to the idea of offering help and support to participants in any way possible. Some of the initiatives and support services currently on offer include:

· Mental resilience training

· Mental health training through leading charity Sporting Chance

· Free access to qualified sports psychologists

· Assistance with stays in rehabilitation facilities when necessary

· Confidential 24-hour helpline

· A range of 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. This is a very welcome addition to the services on offer and I can only hope it continues to grow in the future.

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