Riding the Edge: The Mental Health Challenges Faced by Jockeys

Riding the Edge: The Mental Health Challenges Faced by Jockeys

This is the first part of a two-part series delving into the physical, financial, and emotional pressures that can impact the mental well-being of jockeys. The second part will be published on May 17.

There’s an unparalleled exhilaration in riding a Thoroughbred at full speed down the homestretch of a racetrack. Even for seasoned jockeys with thousands of victories, the thrill never wanes, especially when they’re leading the pack towards the finish line.

For the fortunate few who have experienced it, putting the feeling into words is a challenge. Many describe the rush of adrenaline that accompanies racing. Adrenaline ignites the body, increasing heart rate, raising blood pressure, supplying muscles with fuel, sharpening focus, and enhancing vision. These physical effects intensify emotions, resulting in moments of euphoria and invincibility that grow with each stride as the horse charges towards the end.

For some jockeys, a significant part of the thrill lies in the partnership with their horses. Although jockeys are often solitary athletes, in those moments, they merge with their equine counterparts, pursuing a common goal amidst intense physical exertion. Without words, they can sense each other’s emotions transmitted through the reins, communicating as if by magic.

For many riders, the joy of riding a Thoroughbred on the track lies in finding solace amid the chaos. A good horse can outrun rivals, but any horse can carry its rider away from the troubles that plague them on the ground. Time in the saddle becomes a respite, where thoughts of anything else are banished, providing peace to minds that often lack it.

These are the moments that jockeys chase, the fleeting ticks of a stopwatch for which they wait all day. We witness them braving rain, heat, and snow, clad in a kaleidoscope of racing silks, galloping late into the night on a carousel of horses in the early morning light, forever striving to reach the winner’s circle.

Yet, what we don’t see are the daily pressures they contend with on their journey.

Over the years, several academic studies have revealed what racing enthusiasts have come to realize in recent months: the human athletes at the heart of the sport’s glorious moments often grapple with mental health challenges.

A 2019 study in the United Kingdom surveyed 15 jockeys, revealing that 87 percent had experienced stress, anxiety, or depression in the previous year. Another study in Ireland during the same year surveyed 42 jockeys, of whom 57 percent exhibited symptoms of depression, 52 percent had stress symptoms, 38 percent had social phobia symptoms, 31 percent had self-esteem symptoms, and 21 percent had generalized anxiety symptoms. A 2020 Irish study of 84 riders found that 35 percent met the criteria for depression. According to The Racing Foundation in the UK, approximately one in five people in the general population experience a “common clinical mental health disorder” in a given year.

The life of a jockey has always been arduous, but the recent suicides of jockeys Avery Whisman and Alex Canchari have prompted the racing industry to confront difficult questions about the challenges faced by these athletes and who can provide support.

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