Love of horses keeping jockeys healthy

The world of horse racing is highly competitive, stressful and at times dangerous, but new research by La Trobe University shows jockeys may be largely protected from serious illness by an intense passion for what they do.

Work-stress specialist Dr Brad Wright is leading a three-stage project with La Trobe University colleagues Dr Paul O'Halloran, Dr Matthew Hale and Professor Glynda Kinsella, which investigates how jockeys function and thrive despite the extreme stresses of their job.  

The findings could prove significant in looking at new ways to manage stress in other sporting and work contexts. 

After completing the first stage of the project, Dr Wright said he was surprised by the results. 

'We interviewed every apprentice jockey in Victoria for this project and when you look at the demands of their job and the pressure they're under, you'd expect them to be really stressed – in any other industry they would be at high risk of serious illness,' Dr Wright said. 

'But their love of the job and working closely with animals seems to have a buffering affect against these stresses.' 

The 40 apprentices, aged between 15 and 18 years of age in Racing Victoria's Apprentice Jockey Training Program, usually start their days at 3am and undergo a demanding regime of training, travel and competing before returning home around 7pm to study the next day's form. 

Dr Wright said working closely with animals produces the hormone oxytocin, often known as the 'hug drug', which in jockeys may combat the ravaging effects of stress hormones.   

However, accidents still happen - something the project will aim to prevent. 

'We want to locate the physiological indices that relate to poor decision-making and that way we can work out when these guys are at risk and how we can prevent that,' Dr Wright said. 

Dr Wright said a combination of the jockeys' affiliation with horses, their ability to win at work and the potential of fame and financial return was what kept them going. 

The second stage of the project will begin in September and will involve measuring the jockeys' physiological responses to acute stress and determining how that affects their decision-making abilities. 

The final stage will focus on developing a jockey-specific measure of decision-making and reaction time that can inform both performance and fall risks of riders. 

'Jockeys are actually six times more likely to suffer concussion than AFL footballers, so research in this area is vital,' Dr Wright said.  

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