Jockey Mental Health Once Again Under The Microscope

Jockeys observe a moment of silence in honour of Liam Treadwell | Racing Post


This time last year, life looked a lot different for Ryan Tate. Like most every jockey, Tate's days began at 5 a.m. when he would get up to ride work, in his case at Heath House Stables as a retained rider to Sir Mark Prescott. When training ended it was straight into the car to head to the races, perhaps a 14-hour round trip to Ayr or Hamilton. Or a fleeting visit to Kempton for a ride or two before rushing off to make the three-hour drive to Yarmouth, or Bath or Chelmsford. Every day a different racecourse, but the same relentless routine crafted with as little as 48 hours' notice.

Now, life is a lot slower for Tate and his fellow jockeys.

When racing returned in Britain on June 1 after an 11-week shutdown due to coronavirus, one of the British Horseracing Authority's safety measures was the restriction of jockeys to riding one meeting per day.

“With the ability to do one meeting, the knock-on effect is that at the start of the week, jockeys have to decide where they're going,” Tate explained while driving to an evening meeting at Leicester in late June, where he won on his lone mount. “Generally, seven days before as soon as preliminary entries come out, jockeys will decide where they're going. Before, when jockeys could do multiple meetings, the top 20 jockeys would book rides at every meeting and decide the day of declarations where they were going to go. This has a knock-on effect on the rest of racing because a lot of jockeys will be always waiting to see what another jockey does, where he goes. You're waiting on someone else to make a decision before you can plan your week. Being able to ride at just one meeting per day, everyone decides at the start of the week.”

This forced slowdown means more opportunities spread out among more riders, more down time and less manic schedules. It's not inconceivable, either, that it could save lives.

On June 23, racing was rocked by the death of jockey Liam Treadwell, who was found dead in his home at the age of 34. The Grand National-winning rider had spoken openly in the past of dealing with depression and the negative side effects of concussions, and encouraged his fellow jockeys to be proactive and seek help.

Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. Just four months prior to his death, Treadwell had been a pallbearer for his friend James Banks, a retired jockey who took his own life at 36 years of age. In late May Mick Curran, the former work rider of Kingman (GB) and Golden Horn (GB), tragically lost his own mental health battles. The list grows as one looks back down the years.

A 2018 study on the mental health and well-being of jockeys conducted in Ireland and published in the Journal of Human Sport and Exercise found that 54% of jockeys displayed symptoms of psychological distress, depression or anxiety. When filtering out amateurs, the figure rose to 57% for professional jockeys.

Such conditions are not uncommon in professional athletes; a 2017 study cited in the Irish paper revealed that 47.8% of elite athletes displayed symptoms of anxiety and depression. It is likely that pressure to perform, close public scrutiny, the physical and psychological toll of injuries, burnout from constant training and the lack of a stable support system due to constant relocation foster such symptoms.

For jockeys, add to this a significantly heightened chance of injury, the pressure to maintain low weights, a high ratio of losses to victories and many long and lonely hours spent on the road and it may not come as a surprise that even among elite athletes jockeys are fighting unparalleled mental challenges.

Coronavirus has brought with it its own unique set of challenges, and while it may seem insensitive to suggest that such a devastating turn of events could bring with it unforeseen positives, that certainly seems to be the case when it comes to the forced slowdown of British jockeys; what started as a necessary safety precaution has led to unforeseen positive developments and opportunities on the mental health front for these athletes. Tate said he is far from alone among the jockey colony in noticing the favourable outcomes of being restricted to one meeting per day.

“Everyone seems very much on the same page that it only provides benefits for everyone,” he said. “It takes off a lot of pressure and allows you to concentrate a lot more on the job you're trying to do that day as well as being able to structure a life away from the sport, giving you time to be at home. It has an overall benefit to your well-being.

“For me in particular, I'm picking up a lot more rides because I'm able to plan seven days before where I'm going to be. Prior to lockdown I'd be looking to get the majority of my rides within the 48-hour window of the race. From the 48 hour declarations, my agent would have two hours within that 48-hour window to try to get me spare rides, whereas now he's able to plan for seven days. It's such an increase in time to prepare and it has untold benefits. When you're up at five, your first ride is at half-twelve and your last ride is at nine and you're doing over 600 miles that day, three days in a row; on the final day, you're not the same person you were three days ago.”

Tate acknowledged that a less hectic schedule allows him to give much more to each horse he rides and each trainer that hires him.

“Every time we go to a race and we're being put up by an owner and trainer we're being paid to be there, to do a job, and when you're turning up with your mind in other places and you're thinking about whether you have to run off to another meeting as soon as you finishing riding this race, you're not doing that owner and trainer justice on their horse,” he said. “Trying to run a business like that; as lucky as I am to ride horses for a living, it is still a business and half the time you're letting people down. You're never sticking to a decision because you're always having to keep your options open because nobody else around you is willing to make a decision. It [one meeting per day] is just making life so much more straightforward. It doesn't just give you the benefit of being able to have a social and family life; it gives you the ability to give racing more of yourself on a daily basis. It's very difficult when you're doing two meetings every day to be your best self and turn up motivated every day.”

Lisa Hancock, chairman of the Injured Jockeys Fund, said her organization does “a significant amount in terms of mental health provision, but we want to do more and we can do more.” Hancock can empathize with the pressures on a jockey as a former amateur rider herself.

“It's the constant competitiveness and the fact that they are often on their own,” she said. “So they've driven 200 miles for maybe one ride at a stone under what might be their normal riding weight. They've got beaten, so they're having to cope with a defeat, and then they're driving 200 miles back, still having not eaten, on their own. So there's a huge amount of time to fester on that disappointment when your brain simply isn't functioning at 100% because it's dehydrated. And if you do that time after time after time, it's not good for you. It's been well-documented that's what jockeys are coping with often and it's only the top jockeys who have the luxury of having a driver or maybe even access to an airplane. For the run-of-the-mill jockey it's really tough. I don't know what the percentage is of wins to defeats but there are a hell of a lot more defeats. It's managing that and being able to hold your head up high and then the next day you're going again, and it's day after day after day.”

Even the sport's most elite riders are not immune to a mental toll; when six-time champion jockey Kieren Fallon announced his retirement from the saddle in the summer of 2016, it was to address an ongoing fight against depression. While Fallon had fallen short of his loftiest heights in the twilight of his career, he was once prolific enough to have won three Epsom Derbys and 16 British Classics among big-race successes across the globe.

“When you're doing well you get busier, and you can't say no to work in racing,” Tate said. “It's income you're turning down, and it becomes a case of 'would I like to see my family, or would I like to provide for my family?' That's the question you're dealing with and that's compounded when jockeys are doing two meetings a day and the stress is building.

“The average age of retirement for a jockey is very young compared to the average population. I think that comes naturally down to the mental toll. It's a very physical job but it's not the fact that the body can't do it anymore; it's that the mind won't allow the body to do it anymore. My dad has always said to me, 'racing will be finished with you before you're finished with racing.' I've been riding 10 years now and I've seen it every day. Jockeys struggle to stay in the fight, struggle to keep going through slow times and bad times. It's a fight against the tide and ultimately racing will wear you down. A few are lucky, but not many are. And you're hopefully able to make a living in that time. I've known a great deal of jockeys that one day turn around and realize they just can't do it anymore.”

Hancock was in agreement with Tate that coronavirus health measures have highlighted potentially better ways of doing things.

“We work really closely with the Professional Jockeys Association and likewise Dr. Jerry Hill with the British Horseracing Authority,” Hancock said. “There are a number of things that we've been musing about for months and yet it's taken something like this to bring some of them actually into fruition. I was speaking with Dr. Hill earlier today and we were saying now is the opportunity to try to retain some of those good points, the no use of the saunas being an example. We've been wanting to remove saunas from the racecourse environment for some time and for various reasons we haven't. Now, the jockeys can't use the saunas and they're finding they don't need them and there are much better and healthier ways of maintaining appropriate weight. It's things like that that we'll be really trying to keep as the new norm. I think there are some real benefits to the restrictions and we'll hopefully take some good points away from it and as things get back to normal we'll hopefully create a new normal that might even be a little bit better.”

Mental health support provided by the IJF, PJA and BHA already includes 24-hour hotlines, assessments and expert referrals, and Hancock outlined some of the ways the organizations are working together to strengthen their services.

“We're already engaged with a clinical psychologist body who are helping us with our overall structure and strategy and within that we will be increasing our level of mental health knowledge amongst our own in-house team, but perhaps more importantly we'll be improving the ways we can make referrals and signpost experts because of course what we're not is a mental health charity and we certainly can't be that,” she said. “But we are in regular contact with jockeys, those both currently licensed and retired, and it's our belief that we need to be able to highlight those who might not be in the most robust mental health and to support them as proficiently and expertly as we can. That means early awareness of it, flagging it up, making it not a taboo subject. We already have psychologists within our three rehab centres and we'll be looking to enhance that provision going forward.”

Hancock said they are getting in on the ground level, too, with aspiring riders.

“One of our rehab centres, the Peter O'Sullevan House in Newmarket, is linked to the British Racing School,” she explained. “We think it's very important to educate jockeys in their very formative years so we'll be introducing them to mental well-being and clinical psychologists as the norm at the very early stages of their careers in racing.”

Hancock said that when a jockey comes in for rehabilitation from an injury, it is an opportunity to go over all aspects of their well-being with a fine-tooth comb.

“A jockey may come in because they have a broken clavicle, but that's actually a fantastic opportunity for us to engage them with a nutritionist, and perhaps a sports psychologist or to unravel the niggling knee problem they've been harbouring for two years and haven't had the time or the energy to do anything about,” she said. “Quite often we find the jockey that came in with a broken clavicle two months later is in a much better place all around because we've been able to give them really focused care and attention. I'm really proud that we do offer that to our jockeys.

“They're not forced to ride, this is their chosen career and they do love it, they thrive on the adreneline and the buzz, but even so as a supporting charity we recognize that when they come to us for rehab it's actually an opportunity to sort of rebuild them in every respect.”

Tate said greater awareness and a desire to implement positive change are crucial in the fight against mental illness for jockeys.

“The mental side of it is almost something you're never aware of until it comes upon you,” he said. “I think 90% of the jockeys I come across I could describe as energetic characters that know how lucky they are to do their jobs. Somewhere along the line, you'll find you can meet them down the line and they're not quite that person you once saw. That happens, but there is definitely something within racing that triggers this spiral. There needs to be at least a greater awareness out there for people to acknowledge it and change it. I think being able to structure better lifestyles is only going to have a positive impact. It's like with anything, sometimes you have to take three steps back to take five steps forward so hopefully we'll do that here.”

“There are a lot of positives to take from this dreadful situation,” Hancock concurred. “It's such a crass thing to say that from a disaster you can take opportunities, but actually that's the very best thing we can do.”

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