Not A Job But A Lifestyle: The Mental Health Challenges Facing Jockeys – Horse Racing News

This is the first in a two-part series examining the physical, financial, and emotional pressures…

Not A Job But A Lifestyle: The Mental Health Challenges Facing Jockeys – Horse Racing News

This is the first in a two-part series examining the physical, financial, and emotional pressures that can impact a jockey’s mental health. The second part will publish on May 17. 

There is nothing in the world like riding a Thoroughbred in full flight down the homestretch of a racetrack. Riders who have won thousands of races say the feeling never gets old, especially if they’re in the lead approaching the wire.

For the comparatively few people in the world who have ever experienced it, the moment is difficult to describe. Many talk about the familiar wave of adrenaline that comes with riding in a race. Adrenaline makes the body light up like a Christmas tree, raising the heart rate, spiking the blood pressure, speeding the delivery of fuel to muscles, sharpening concentration, and brightening vision. The physical effects enhance emotions, creating shining moments of euphoria and invincibility rising with each stride as the horse surges toward the finish.

For some jockeys, part of the thrill is the partnership with the horse. In many ways, jockeys are solitary athletes, but in those moments, they meld with a mute creature to pursue the same goal amidst all-out physical exertion. Without words, the two can feel each other’s emotions vibrating through the reins, communicating as though by a magic spell.

For many, the joy of riding a Thoroughbred on the track is finding silence in the noise. A good horse can outrun his rivals, but any horse can carry their rider away from the troubles that dogged them on the ground. Time in the saddle is time a rider can’t afford to think about anything else, creating peace in a mind that may often be devoid of it.

These are the moments riders chase, fleeting ticks of a stopwatch for which they spend all day waiting. We see them in rain, heat, and snow, riding races in a dizzying rainbow of silks late into the night, on a rotating merry-go-round of gallopers in early morning light, forever straining to reach the winner’s circle again.

What we don’t see are the pressures they battle each day on the way there.

Multiple academic studies through the years have shown what racing fans have realized more clearly in recent months – the human athletes at the heart of the sport’s most shining moments are, often, battling mental health challenges.

A 2019 study from the United Kingdom found 87 percent of the 15 jockeys surveyed had reported stress, anxiety or depression in the previous year; a different 2019 study in Ireland surveyed 42 jockeys, of whom 57 percent had symptoms of depression, 52 percent had stress symptoms, 38 percent had social phobia symptoms, 31 percent had self-esteem symptoms, and 21 had generalized anxiety symptoms. One 2020 Irish study of 84 riders pegged the rate of jockeys meeting the criteria for depression at 35 percent. According to The Racing Foundation in the UK, about one in five people in the general population experience a “common clinical mental health disorder” in the course of a year.

The life of a jockey has always been difficult, but the recent deaths of jockeys Avery Whisman and Alex Canchari by suicide have the racing industry asking itself tough questions about why it’s so challenging – and who can help.

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It’s not if, it’s when

As racing’s elite gathered at Churchill Downs May 1, preparing to observe the post position draw for the 149th Kentucky Derby, Spectacular Road stumbled in the first race at JACK Thistledown, some 350 miles away. The horse righted himself and continued on, but unseated jockey Mauro Cedillo, a 24-year-old whose injuries were so severe he was sedated and put on a ventilator in the intensive care unit at Cleveland’s Metro Health Medical Center. Only in the hours after the Derby field crossed the wire did photos emerge of Cedillo that seemed more hopeful as he smiled from his hospital bed.

Management at Thistledown cancelled the remainder of the May 1 card, but it’s not uncommon for jockeys to watch a colleague hit the dirt, be carted off on a backboard, and have to suit up for the next race.

“You’ve got to put it to the back of your head and hope that person is OK,” said Darius Thorpe, who rides at Charles Town. “You can’t let it affect you. People will see it affects you and view you as being scared or think you’ll pull a horse because of whatever you’ve just seen.”

The most common truism jockeys will tell you about their job is that it’s not if they’ll fall or if they’ll get hurt, it’s when and it’s how badly. The other thing most jockeys will point out to someone outside the room is that theirs is the only sport in which an ambulance chases them around the field, ready to cart off broken bodies if needed.

“Get in your pajamas, get in the back of a pick-up truck on a dirt road and go 40 miles an hour, and jump out,” said Remi Bellocq, executive director of BCTC Equine, formerly the North American Racing Academy. “And then tell me how it feels. That’s what it is to fall off a horse when you’re going that fast.

“That’s kind of an eye-opener for a lot of people.”

Terry “T.D.” Houghton has ridden races for 36 years – accumulating over 6,100 wins and seven surgeries. He can’t keep track of how many bones he has broken on the track. If you count ribs, he says, he’s probably up to twenty-something.

“One time I went down in a spill at Mountaineer and I punctured my lung,” he remembered. “I had a two-inch tear in my lung. I’d punctured a lung before and broken ribs several times. I’m lying there on the racetrack and the paramedic comes over and I told him, ‘I’ve got broken ribs and one of my lungs has collapsed.’ He said, ‘How do you know that?’ and I said, ‘I know it.’ He thought I was crazy.”

Houghton has two rods and six screws in his back, two plates and 17 pins in a shoulder, and ankle plates with pins on both sides. At one point, he tore his rotator cuff and was told surgery would take six months’ recovery but that he could keep riding with the injury until the pain became untenable.

Not A Job But A Lifestyle: The Mental Health Challenges Facing Jockeys – Horse Racing News
Terry Houghton

“For two years it really bothered me, and I don’t know if I just got used to it or it quit bothering me,” Houghton said. “They said it wasn’t going to heal on its own. To me, I can move it like I could before. The first two years, I couldn’t. I had to change my whipping style because I couldn’t lift my arm the same way. Now, it doesn’t bother me.”

In the short term, those inevitable injuries are impactful, for more than just their pain. There’s the expense, of course – worker’s compensation programs in place for jockeys have caps in some states on what an injured rider may claim after an accident. That cap, even when it’s as high as $1 million, can easily be surpassed before a rider leaves the hospital if their fall is a serious one.

Then there’s the cash flow problem. Unlike many of their colleagues overseas who work on contract, American jockeys recovering from injury or illness earn nothing until they can get back into the starting gates.

Stacie Loveberry, wife of Kentucky Derby runner-up jockey Jareth Loveberry, recalled eating almost exclusively canned vegetables and ramen noodles for months after her husband had surgery on a shoulder that took him out of riding for six months. Backstretch communities will sometimes rally with an online fundraiser to help a jockey pay their bills while they sit on the sidelines, but these aren’t guarantees that a battered rider can count on. The Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund can step in when a rider is permanently disabled, but as we’ve reported before, contributions to the Fund haven’t kept pace with the need, and as a result it has to be strict in its allocation of resources.

Many riders will also tell you they have to worry about getting adequate medical care after a serious fall. Jockeys at tracks outside major metropolitan areas will often warn each other – especially apprentices and out-of-town riders who aren’t familiar with the lay of the land — to request a longer trip in the ambulance to a better medical facility. Houghton recalled more than one incident where some of his injuries went undetected or poorly-treated at smaller hospitals that seemed overfaced by the trauma of a racing fall.

Then there are the long-term impacts. Because they aren’t paid until they return to the saddle, many jockeys approach medical advice like a challenge. Can’t walk again? Watch me ride. Sit out for six weeks? I’ll make it back in three. Some of it probably comes down to their competitive nature, but a lot of it is necessity. For years, riders have made the decision themselves about when they’re ready to ride after a fall.

“If you’ve got a concussion, you’re not going to go find the doctor,” said Bellocq. “You’re going to hide in the jockey’s room or the bathroom because if they say you’re unfit to ride, you’re not going to get paid.”

Recovery from an injury is tough. Not only is there no money coming in, but their horses are running under competing riders in their place, and they can’t even hit the gym like they used to. Far from just grounding them from flight, a lay-off makes still a person who’s otherwise always moving, and adapting to that sudden and dramatic change can be its own struggle.

For a sport that reveres its history, racing can often have a poor long-term memory. When jockeys make it back to the track, they often have to re-establish themselves. Thorpe lost seven and a half months when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament while being pitched over a rail during a race.

“You go stir crazy,” said Thorpe. “Then you come back and feel like everybody forgets your name, and you’ve got to worry about people thinking, is he going to be able to walk right, is he going to be able to ride the same? You don’t really know what people think, but you have to hope for the best and basically start over and prove yourself, let them know you haven’t missed a step.”

Andre Ramgeet recalled coming back from a broken left shoulder similarly.

“When I came back, everybody’s like, ‘We just want to see how you’re going to ride,’” he remembered. “The first couple races back I had the stick in my left hand all the way down the lane, and they kept saying they want to see how I ride. I’m like, ‘I broke my left shoulder. I’ve got to know what else you want to see.’”

The premise of the 2021 film titled “Jockey” suggests that as they age, many riders feel those injuries every day, though the riders we spoke to for this story said they don’t live with much chronic pain.

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However, retired riders have made little secret of how long cognitive fallout from concussions can linger. Houghton suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2002 that was so severe, doctors were amazed he survived. He had to relearn to walk and speak, but even when he’d cleared those hurdles, he said some types of memory came back even slower. Names often eluded him, even names of people he’d known for years.

“Even now I still have trouble with some things,” he said. “Things don’t click like they did before but things are mostly back to normal.”

Making weight

Jockeys are known to the outside world as diminutive people, and most casual viewers of the pageantry on Derby Day think little of the reason why. Jockeys have to be light, though not necessarily short.

“The majority of our lives during the race week is losing weight,” Thorpe said. “It’s probably 60, 70 percent of our time, losing weight.

“I’m not going to say it’s more mentally exhausting than everything else, but it definitely takes a toll on you after a while.”

The typical tacked weight for a journeyman in most places is now 118 pounds, but for apprentice riders just starting out who have a 10-pound weight allowance, that means they can only tack 108, including their equipment.

The extremes that even successful riders have gone to daily to make weight are well-documented. In her wildly-successful book titled “Seabiscuit: An American Legend”, author Laura Hillenbrand writes that in the 1920s and 1930s many jockeys got by eating no more than 600 calories a day. (For reference, a Big Mac is 563 calories.) John “Red” Pollard, the famed jockey of Seabiscuit, was said to have gone an entire year eating nothing but eggs, and in his jockey days, James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons recalled eating only a leaf or two of lettuce for dinner in the evenings – after he’d set them in the windowsill to evaporate the water from them.

For most riders, all but the very luckiest, food intake becomes an obsession. Many confess to eating only one full meal a day, if that, in the evening after they’ve finished riding races. While you or I may compose a meal based on nutrient content or likelihood of converting to body fat, a working jockey has to do some extra mental math. Many consider not only the composition of the food they eat, but how much each forkful weighs as they slave to the authority of the scale.

The most fortunate riders (often the youngest and physically smallest) can make weight by eating light and exercising religiously. For everyone else, exercise can be less about fitness and more about sweat, as they run in sweatsuits or plastic bags to maximize fluid loss. Many riders use the sauna to sweat off as much as they can – some of them as much as seven pounds in a couple of hours. Others resort to laxatives or self-induced vomiting, called “flipping.” Still others have taken furosemide, which works by rapid dehydration, to enhance fluid loss.

Darius Thorpe rides his first winner at Laurel in January 2015

“When you go to the hotbox to pull weight, that dehydrates you so much and then when you get out of there and you’re riding, the only thing you can think about is getting something to drink, and then it seems like it’s harder to get it off the next day,” said Houghton. “Some guys too they have to pull so much weight that it drains you, it knocks you down. You won’t be as strong as you were before you went into the box, that’s for sure. You’re still strong enough and capable to ride a good race but when it comes down to it and you’re going down the lane battling someone stronger who didn’t have to pull the weight you did, they’re going to out-finish you.”

T.C. Stevens became a jockey this year at age 38 after a career spent exercise riding, and said at the start of the Fair Grounds meet, he weighed 135 pounds, much of it muscle. He’s gotten down to 116 gradually, shedding that muscle through calorie restriction with the help of an app on his phone.

His dinners consist of lean fish and steamed vegetables night after night. It can be hard, he admits, to look over at his son eating a hamburger while he surveys another plate of steamed greens. He allows himself one cheat day a week to help maintain discipline.

Stevens guzzles water, one to one and a half gallons a day, to offset the impacts of dehydration from the sweat box, but many riders just avoid drinking as best they can, even as their skin is still warm from the sauna. When jockeys feel devoid of energy, he says, they reach into their locker and grab a piece of candy, knowing they’ll burn off the calories. The sugar will give them a short buzz and the candy itself won’t show up much on the scale.

“I want this worse than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life,” Stevens said. “I want to be a jockey. The juice is worth the squeeze.”

Outside the context of racing, the degree of obsession jockeys must have to make weight is considered disordered eating – and it’s daily life for most of them. One 2002 study found that 75 percent of jockeys engage in some kind of weight loss strategy, while a smaller study in 2014 found the rate to be 100 percent.

Persistent calorie and fluid deprivation takes a toll on the body, but it takes a toll on the mind, too. Even mild dehydration can have impacts on mood, energy level, and cognitive function. Caloric restriction, likewise, has been found to increase the likelihood of depression.

But that’s not all jockeys are facing.

Social isolation

In late March, Stevens was frustrated. He’d gotten two mounts since hanging out his shingle as a jockey two weeks earlier, and he found himself alone in a Louisiana hotel room, tired and disheartened. He had shifted from Fair Grounds to Evangeline Downs in hopes of building a broader business base, but it wasn’t working.

“They wouldn’t let me breeze horses,” he said. “I was standing on the rail for a week and I knew people could see me. I couldn’t get horses to breeze, let alone ride. I’m sitting in my hotel room, away from my family. I’m paying to stay in a hotel room, not making any money. My wife’s stressed. I haven’t seen her in five months. I put on Twitter, ‘I quit, I’m going home.’ Did I have an honest intention of quitting what I worked hard for? No, not really. But did I want people to see how very low I felt and give people a chance to come help me? Yes.”

The life of a jockey can be a lonely one. Some come from South or Central America knowing no one, far from their families. Others have to travel far from wives and children to chase opportunities, or move around the country with everyone in tow in an attempt to keep the family together.

T.C. Stevens aboard Tapit’s Conquest

Julie Ramgeet, who has been married to Andre Ramgeet for seven years, says that it’s not just jockeys who make sacrifices en route to chasing another winning stretch run – it’s the people at home, too. They’re sounding boards, anchors, cheerleaders, and coaches, even when riders try not to bring too much of their work home.

“Don’t grow up wanting to be a jockey’s wife,” she cautioned. “That wasn’t the goal. I fell into it because we share the love of the horse. … They aren’t able to give you the attention that a normal wife would want. The 50/50 marriage, no. You make a choice to support their career and you absolutely take a backseat to that. It’s hard. I struggle. I’m still trying to find a balance.”

Andre works horses in the morning at Charles Town, and has a few hours to catch up on sleep or spend time with the couple’s three children before going back to the track at 5 p.m. and not returning until 12:30 a.m.

Ferrin Peterson launched her jockey career to much fanfare in 2018 while studying for a degree in veterinary medicine. She gets a lot of windshield time as she drives from her home near Lexington the 65 miles to Churchill Downs, then sometimes another 94 miles to Turfway Park, or 113 miles to Horseshoe Indianapolis, or perhaps back to Lexington again to work horses at a training center. When she needs to break up the time behind the wheel, she finds a trail along the route to sneak in a run.

“I’ve ridden two racetracks in the same day and I’ve breezed at three different racetracks in the morning and ridden at two in the afternoon,” she said. “If you’re really ambitious and you just want to get all the opportunities you can, you can drive all over the place.”

None of that leaves much room for anything else.

Peterson said she’s lucky, because although she doesn’t have an agent, she has a good support system in her non-racing family and in Hall of Fame riders including Julie Krone, Pat Day, Steve Cauthen, Ramon Dominguez, and Chris McCarron. If she’s feeling overwhelmed, she has people she can call to vent her frustrations or concerns with the job. Not everyone has that – but many jockeys are on an equally hectic schedule.

“Imagine that you haven’t eaten a solid meal in a couple of days, you have to get up at four in the morning, drive from Lexington to Turfway to work horses, then drive back to The Thoroughbred Center to work horses, grab a PowerBar, drive back to Turfway for the races,” said Bellocq, another mentor of Peterson. “That kind of schedule, day in and day out, seven days a week, it takes a toll, especially on a young person.”

Bellocq says the schedule is more grueling for riders like Peterson who do their own agenting. Besides just being athletes, they have to be their own promoters, which doesn’t come easily to everyone.

“You’ve got to go barn to barn and put on a show,” he said.

Remi Bellocq

About the time trainers may be taking a break to grab a forbidden donut, jockeys have to try to talk their way into work, over and over. Bellocq said when you look at the ease of top riders on camera or in media interviews, it makes sense that they became successful – they were the riders who had the natural swagger to self-promote while they were on the way up the ladder.

Stevens said he’s gotten some flak for those late-night tweets, but he stands by them. He uses social media as a release valve for these frustrations when he knows he needs one. He said it’s brought him business – and he figures it’s better than the alternative.

“I’ve put some things on social media that people have called me up and said you’re ruining your career doing this stuff or you seem volatile when you do that,” he said. “The one thing I’ve said to them that has stopped everyone in their tracks is, imagine if Avery Whisman or Alex Canchari felt vulnerable enough to put on social media or in a text message how they were feeling. Don’t you think someone may have rushed to them to help them?”

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