Wider questions remain around the long-term effects of participating in a sport with unforgiving minimum jockey weights, according to the authors of a just-published review.
Many publications have described the behaviors employed daily by professional jockeys to achieve and maintain a minimum racing weight, Kelly Ryan and Joseph Brodine wrote in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine.
The pair, with the Department of Family Medicine at the Medstar Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, set out in their review to provide an update of recent publications that report on the impact of such practices.
They found that although rapid weight-loss techniques such as calorie restriction and dehydration are commonly believed to be harmful to jockeys, little evidence exists of enduring health consequences.
Traditional weight-making and physical preparation strategies for riding have emerged as a focal point for discussion, they said, as the number of publications on jockey health has increased in recent decades.
Ryan and Brodine, who cited 42 scientific papers in their review, said the studies they examined collectively indicate a need for industry-wide reform of common dietary practices and exercise regimens, which are not aligned with optimum preparation for the physiological demands of the sport.
“Jockeys,” they said, “appear to underestimate their energy intake while needlessly restricting their nutritional intake in a manner that does not benefit their performance and may result in certain adverse health consequences.”
Typical dietary practices tend to be low in essential micronutrients and high in carbohydrates — an unnecessarily increased energy supply that is overmatched for the modest total daily energy demands of the sport, they found.
The usual exercise regimens do not seem to benefit a rider’s metabolism, or comprise of sports-specific conditioning. “The light morning riding activities of jockeys along with as many as a half-dozen rides on a race day may take up many hours of a jockey’s day but only amount to about 45 minutes of strenuous activity — substantially less than a professional athlete playing a different sport.”
The authors suggested that the apparent absence of routine aerobic endurance and high-intensity strength training may derive from a misconceived aim to avoid adding undesired muscle mass, coupled with the perception that daily riding practices on non-racing days are adequate for preparation.
They noted that, in an analysis of race days in New Zealand over a 14-year period, researchers found that a minority of starting flat race jockeys (23%) performed the majority of race-day rides (83%), highlighting an “inefficiency” within the industry and underscoring the need for a training regimen that reflects race-day efforts.
Researchers, the authors noted, have consistently labelled jockeys’ weight-making practices as dangerous or harmful.
Some investigators have measured the degree of dehydration — a common weight-loss measure — and its effects on moods in an effort to quantify harmful consequences.
“Despite the intuitive reasoning behind this perception, there is little evidence of any particular chronic morbidity or acute injury associated with the weight-making practices in question.”
Indeed, some researchers have speculated that the extreme weight loss jockeys can achieve in hours, though dangerous to a typical adult, might be well tolerated by athletes physiologically accustomed to these practices.
Ryan and Brodine also examined the evolution of research on jockeys’ bone health. Early reports of low bone mineral density raised concerns about increased fracture risk, yet the reasons for this apparently common finding among jockeys are unclear.
Recent findings increasingly favour the hypothesis that the lower density is a result of reduced load-bearing on their bones, rather than nutrition or lifestyle factors.
“It is notable that none of the publications featured in this review nor any other publications known to the authors has associated an increased risk of bone fracture with the putative low bone mineral density of jockeys, nor is low bone mineral density known to be associated with adverse pathology among older or retired jockeys.”
The pair said the science describing the effects of weight-making practices among jockeys continues to mature and offer new insights.
“While future research could serve as a guide for athletes and trainers in a paradigm-shift towards healthier nutritional behaviors and exercise regimens that more closely align with the actual physical demands of the sport, broader questions remain regarding the long-term effects of participating in a sport with unforgiving minimum riding weight limits,” they said.
“Both athletes and the horse racing industry must heed the science and move to embrace evidence-based practices as investigators continue to refine our understanding and better measure the consequences of this aspect of one of the world’s most popular sports.
“Further research is necessary to better measure the health impact of jockey weight-making behaviors; such data might guide reforms of athlete behavior and regulatory practices within the global sport of horse racing.”
Ryan K, Brodine J. Weight-Making Practices Among Jockeys: An Update and Review of the Emergent Scientific Literature. Open Access J Sports Med. 2021;12:87-98