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Professional Jockeys as Elite Athletes: Education and training necessary to protect their health and well-being

By Laura Donnellan, School of Law, University of Limerick, Ireland   On 11 July 2017, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), which regulates horseracing in Britain, announced that two academic institutions had taken the lead in research projects funded by a number of stakeholders, including the BHA. The preliminary results have recently been published in open access academic journals by academics at two universities: Oxford University and Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) (“New research reinforces need to treat jockeys as elite athletes / 11 Jul 17”, The study carried out by Daniel Martin from the Research Institute of Sport and Exercise Sciences at LJMU focused on the relationship between nutrition and performance and the distrust that surrounds outsiders such as nutritionists; whilst the Oxford University study examined the bone density and body composition of jockeys. Both studies were funded by the BHA, the Racing Foundation (founded in 2012, and the universities. The fact that research is being funded into the health and well-being of jockeys suggests that the relevant stakeholders in racing recognise that jockeys are elite athletes and that they need more robust support in place that are provided for other elite and high-performance athletes. In April 2015, the BHA advertised a three-year funded PhD (with LJMU) that would examine jockey nutrition, physiology and health (“Jockey health and nutrition education to be subject of major new Racing PhD / 02 Apr 15”, Daniel Martin commenced his research in October 2015 (“Daniel Martin appointed to first Jockey Nutrition and Welfare PhD / 29 Sep 15”, Martin is currently a member of the nutrition team of the Professional Jockeys’ Association (PJA). The BHA funded the research in order “to create a comprehensive education package on good health and nutritional practices that can be used to support jockeys’ wellbeing and long-term fitness”. In a published paper entitled: A nutritionist and an educator in professional horseracing: using reflection to create ‘My process’ (Daniel Martin (2017): “A nutritionist and an educator in professional horseracing: using reflection to create ‘My process’”, Reflective Practice, DOI: 10.1080/14623943.2017.1304374), Martin refers to professional horseracing as a “truly unique industry” (at p.5). It is a sport wherein jockeys often restrict calorie and fluid intake and self-induce vomit in order to control their weight. Consequently, in their strive to be the requisite weight, many jockeys have weakened bone density and are susceptible to conditions including osteopenia (a lower bone mineral density than normal but not to an extent that the person suffers from osteoporosis) and osteomalacia (a softening of the bones due to a deficiency of Vitamin D).  Martin observes that some jockeys are unwilling to discuss nutrition with an “outsider” (at p.6) and that archaic methods of weight-management are still prevalent in British horseracing. He notes that there is “a real division amongst jockeys on the importance and effectiveness of optimal nutrition” (at p.6). Jockeys are more likely to seek advice from senior and retired jockeys than approach a nutritionist. The reluctance of jockeys to enquire about nutrition from a professional is largely attributed to a lack of awareness of the supports that are available; a belief that the traditional methods of weight-management are effective and “an intrinsic denial to acknowledge that they need help” (at p.6). Martin identifies the need to begin with educating young jockeys in the hope that this will dissuade them from seeking nutritional advice from more senior jockeys (at p.6). In line with the recognition of jockey’s as elite athletes, two racing colleges (who grant jockey licences) in the UK run a mandatory nutrition seminar; however, Martin reflects on the way these courses are run and acknowledges that in order to engage the jockeys in the process, changes need to be made". He asserts that there must be an application of the theory to practice, there needs to be interactive engagement and not just a didactic seminar on the theory. There is no point, he contends, leaving it up to the jockeys to put into practice what they have learned from a two-hour seminar (at p.7). The seminar could actually prove to be detrimental as an information overload session may make the jockey have reservations about following up with a nutritionist. There is a balance that needs to be struck between providing the necessary information and obtaining a corresponding positive response. The use of meal-replacement shakes and diet pills that claim to speed up metabolism are short- term remedies and sometimes ineffective, notwithstanding that the fat burning product or supplement could contain a prohibited substance (at p.8). Martin sums up the reluctance of jockeys to avail themselves of the advice of nutritionists as follows: time is money, the jockey earns a livelihood from racing and needs to reach the required weight, attending a session with a nutritionist takes up valuable time and there is a fear that changing their eating habits will lead to weight gain (at p.8). Nutritionists fail to tailor their methods to jockeys and tend to use the same approach as they would with a team. Some nutritionists give the jockey little or no autonomy over the proposed changes to their diets and instead adopt a more “prescriptive” approach (at p.8). As the jockeys feel removed from the decision-making process, they tend to abandon the nutritionists’ advice. The problem is not just down to individual jockeys, there needs to be a major overhaul within the horseracing industry. Outside the seminar that is part of the jockey licence course, there is no further training or education and thus jockeys are left to their own devices. Martin contends that future research should examine how to educate jockeys on nutrition by utilising a lens through which the learner is the focus and cognisance is given to the fact that jockeys tend to be active learners (at p.9). The “transactional distance” between the jockeys and nutritionists needs to be addressed and a more holistic approach employed that places the jockey at the centre of learning within an interactive setting. Martin advocates a more collaborative approach wherein the jockey assumes responsibility or ownership of their own nutritional needs. In using peer-observation with counterparts from education during one-to-one sessions, Martin contends that a “standardised quality of service” which will facilitate the dissemination of best practice (at p.9). At the core of Martin’s recommendations is the importance of adopting a humanistic approach: each jockey is an individual and time should be taken to get to know them to develop a personal relationship with the nutritionist (at p.9).  Martin asserts (at p.9): “On the face of it, horseracing is a harsh sport with a history of hostility towards interventions from the outside member, but in my experience once you see beyond the exterior you realise support is valued”. By using teaching ideology from the education side and complementing it with the knowledge of nutrition, Martin believes that the “transactional distance” can be reduced (at p.10). As part of its campaign to educate jockeys on dangerous weight loss measures, a number of posters have been designed to be displayed in locker rooms and will feature the hashtag #JockeyAthleteDiet. The campaign has been developed by the PJA, the BHA and LJMU (“New research reinforces need to treat jockeys as elite athletes / 11 Jul 17”). A number of researchers from the University of Oxford’s Botnar Research Centre, the BHA and the University of Southampton published an article entitled: Bone density and body composition in newly licenced professional jockeys (K A Jackson, M T Sanchez-Santos, A L MacKinnon, A Turner, K Kuznik, C Box, M K Javaid, C Cooper, N K Arden, J L Newton “Bone density and body composition in newly licenced professional jockeys” Osteoporos Int 2017 Jun 13. Epub 2017 Jun 13; the full text may be accessed at: The researchers found that one in three male flat race jockeys have very low bone mineral density (BMD). The data was gathered from jockeys applying for professional licences between 2013 and 2015 with 216 newly licenced jockeys taking part in the study (42% male flat race jockeys; 37.1% male jumps racing; and 19.9% female flat race jockeys). The jockeys were assessed using dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scans. The study concluded that male flat race jockeys had significantly lower BMD, lean mass index (LMI) and body fat percent (BF%) than jumps racing jockeys and flat racing female jockeys. Newly licenced jockeys were chosen as they tend to weigh less than more experienced jockeys as they view a lighter weight as making up for lack of experience. There is a minimum weight of eight stone (50.8 kg) for flat race jockeys; however, for newly licenced jockeys there is a seven-pound allowance (referred to as a claim), which means jockeys can weigh seven stone seven pounds (47.6 kg). The claim reduces as the jockey wins and once s/he has won ninety-five races then the claim ceases and the minimum weight is eight stone. Newly licenced jockeys are typically aged between sixteen and twenty-five and should have achieved 90% of their peak bone mass by their early twenties; thus the researchers state: “lifestyle choices in the newly licenced jockey population is key for their immediate, but also future, bone health”. The study concludes that 29% of newly licenced male flat racing jockeys have very low BMD in their spines. Also, these jockeys have a lower LMI than the normal population and other low-weight sports. Most studies focus on injuries suffered by jockeys resulting from a fall; however, these two studies have highlighted the long-term dangers involved in maintaining a low weight. The LJMU research has demonstrated the lack of education and distrust of “outsiders” such as nutritionists and the need for a seismic shift in the prevailing attitudes in the horseracing industry. The Oxford University study has unearthed the issue of significantly lower bone mineral density among young male flat racing jockeys. These are just two studies; the research is ongoing. Currently researchers are analysing the long-term health effects using data acquired from 250 retired jockeys. This study, according to a BHA press release, is expected to be published later this year.   Laura Donnellan may be contacted by e-mail at ‘This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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