Jockey initiative aims to make racing safer for horses and riders

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Jockey Sophie Doyle rides Charlie for a demonstration of performance testing done at the University of Kentucky’s Sports Medicine Research Institute. Photo: Mark Cornelison, University of Kentucky

A University of Kentucky initiative that initially focused on jockey concussion is expanding its outlook to assess key areas of performance. The goal is a baseline assessment for ideal jockey performance, against which novice riders can benchmark their own development. Allison Perry reports.

A new research initiative from the University of Kentucky Sports Medicine Research Institute is looking closely at jockey performance – and the work has implications not only for the jockeys themselves, but also for the thoroughbreds they ride.

The institute’s Jockey and Equestrian Initiative was launched in 2018 following a pilot study that sought to implement protocols for baseline concussion testing in jockeys. Now, the initiative is expanding to include a more holistic assessment of a jockey’s health through a wide range of performance testing, including body composition, flexibility, reaction time, leg and grip strength, and balance.

After testing the individual elements of their performance, the jockeys are covered with tiny electrodes and hop up on Charlie, the institute’s famous mechanical horse. Once they get their bearings – Charlie feels surprisingly similar to the real thing, they say – they participate in a two-minute simulation of racing in the Breeder’s Cup. Next to the horse, a small screen shows instant feedback on the ride, like how the rider shifts their weight or pulls the reins.

The goal, says principal investigator Kimberly Tumlin, Ph.D., is to get a baseline assessment for ideal jockey performance.

“If we better understand what it takes to be a professional jockey from performance and risk factor perspectives, we can help the novice riders achieve a higher level of performance,” said Tumlin, an assistant professor of preventive medicine and environmental health in the university’s College of Public Health.

During a ride on the mechanical horse, tiny electrodes on the rider capture information on the jockey’s position. Photo: Mark Cornelison, University of Kentucky

But this work could also have implications for a huge problem plaguing the horse racing industry right now – the injuries and fatalities befalling both the horses and subsequently the jockeys in professional races. While the likely causes of these tragedies are multi-factorial, the dynamics that affect a jockey’s overall performance may play a role, says Scott Lephart, Ph.D., dean of the university’s College of Health Sciences.

“We know that concussions can reduce reaction time, but we are also looking at things like the impact of fatigue, nutrition, weight loss and more,” Lephart said. “Jockeys have told us that they feel their reactions to the horses can help prevent falls, and part of our work involving assessing when they are more at risk for not reacting quickly enough.”

Tumlin agrees, noting that a jockey’s reaction in a tight situation can either lessen or worsen the outcome for everyone involved. By learning more about the mechanics of the most elite athletes, they can help improve the performance of all riders.

“For example, if a rider’s reaction time is slower than that of an elite jockey, we can provide them opportunities and performance-based activities to train them to that level,” she said.

Research is being done across the country to identify potential issues with the health of the horses themselves, but Lephart notes that the Sports Medicine Research Institute brings a different perspective to the conversation by focusing on “the two-legged equine athlete”.

The overarching goal is to make the sport safer, both for the horses and the riders, and the jockeys themselves are helping lead the way with their willingness to participate.

Researcher Kimberly Tumlin, left, prepares Sophie Doyle for an arm strength evaluation as other jockeys look on. Photo: Mark Cornelison, University of Kentucky

Michaela Keener, a doctoral student in the College of Health Sciences, serves as the research administrative coordinator on the project. As the primary data collector, Keener says enthusiasm among the participating jockeys has been high. Once their data has been processed, Keener gives each rider a written report summarizing their results.

“Everyone that’s been in for testing so far has been pretty excited about it, especially once they see their report,” Keener said. “We’ve even had jockeys reach out to us about coming in after they’ve seen and heard the feedback from others.”

Performance testing and linking prior injury to performance gives the riders a chance to learn more about their own strengths and flaws. After coming into the institute for performance testing earlier this year, veteran jockey Sophie Doyle noted that it was an experience every jockey should take advantage of.

“I was able to push my body to the limit and see how it was able to handle the pressure,” Doyle said. “Whether it is establishing a baseline of performance to understand where you are today, or if you are recovering from an injury and want to be able to test how you are recovering, the data they collect will provide insight which we have never had riding in America.”

The Jockey and Equestrian Initiative is one of four major research initiatives housed at the institute, building upon the 25+ years of research that came to the University of Kentucky in 2015 with the arrival of Dean Lephart. The institute opened its doors in June 2017 and is supported in part by a $US4.2 million grant from the US Department of Defense.

The 10,000-square-foot facility, part of the university’s Nutter Training Facility on campus, conducts research into injury prevention and performance optimization for professional and collegiate athletes, the tactical athletes of the US military, and physically active people of all ages in Kentucky and beyond.

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