Mental health issues in horse racing and other equestrian disciplines
Updated: Jan 27, 2022
While riding out one morning recently, a friend brought up the conversation of mental health problems within the horse racing community. I was surprised to learn that issues with mental health are widespread, with a high percentage of jockeys reporting problems; In fact, a survey by the charity Racing Welfare found that 87% of jockeys reported an experience of "stress, anxiety or depression".
Last night I was researching horse racing and mental health and I came across several pieces highlighting the problem. I found a really interesting article on the BBC Sport page, in which, jockey Kevin Tobin shares his story in an attempt to highlight issues that can cause a downturn in a person's mental wellbeing. The article also details the deaths of two prominent jockeys who had spoken about mental health issues in the past.
James Banks was found dead at his home last February after struggling with problems in his personal life which affected his mental health. Then, after being a pall bearer at James's funeral, Grand National winning jockey Liam Treadwell was also reported to have died at the age of only 34. Liam had voiced his concern over his mental health after a series of falls had caused cumulative concussion. An inquest into his death is scheduled for February this year. You can read the full article here.
So, why is it that so many jockeys are suffering with mental ill-health? Well, firstly the life of a jockey or indeed any professional equestrian is incredibly tough. For jockeys there is the constant pressure of keeping their weight down by starving themselves, the relentless driving between race courses, the pressure to perform and get better rides and the sheer physical exhaustion. Then there's dealing with defeat which happens much more frequently than the winning. You are constantly hitting the dopamine high one minute then crashing into a pit of depression and desperation the next.
When I was riding professionally, in the sport of eventing, I found that the constant swings from exhilarating highs to devastating lows had a really negative impact on my mental health. I was riding not just the horses but a huge rollercoaster of emotions week in week out until eventually depression started to affect me. I was so low at one point that I was in the start box at an Advanced event thinking "I don't actually care if I live or die today". I'd beaten myself over the back with a stick to keep going because I was too ashamed to admit that there was a problem and the result was a massive breakdown and a forced retirement from the sport. I really hope to be able to help others through my experience now by writing about it.
Another rider who has spoken out in an attempt to help others is jockey Mark Enright. I found a lovely article in the Racing Post online in which he describes feeling like he had blocks tied around his ankles. He's right, it feels like you are being sucked under and wading through treacle while trying to perform even the simplest of tasks and it's only through us explaining what it is like that others can understand what we're experiencing. You can read Mark's interview in the Racing Post here . There is also a really informative and interesting short video documentary with him which you can find here.
Horse racing is doing a lot to help by providing access to psychologists and psychiatrists in the same way they provide help for physical problems, which is really good to see. There really isn't a distinction between the two; both are serious and both can cause terrible damage.
I'm so thrilled that Mark seems to have overcome his problems with depression and that his story is helping to open a conversation and give hope to others. In order for more people to benefit from this, the articles need to reach them so please do share this page and the links to others! (This can be done by clicking the three dots at the top right of this article).
Tomorrow's post will be about how we can all use tips and strategies to help our mental health in lockdown so be sure to check back in!
Thank you for reading!
Speak to you soon,