Many racehorse trainers in Ireland show signs of mental stress, findings show

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Despite stresses within the industry, work satisfaction among racehorse trainers was high, with 72% classified as satisfied with their careers.
Trackwork on the Curragh racecourse in Kildare, Ireland. Image by photo$

Symptoms related to common mental disorders are common among racehorse trainers in Ireland, the findings of a study suggest.

Researchers, reporting last year in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, set out to explore the prevalence of symptoms related to common mental disorders and their associations with specific risk factors.

A total of 450 licensed trainers over the age of 18 were invited to participate in the online survey by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board. The survey employed validated screening measures to identify mental health issues.

In all, 124 completed the questionnaire, representing a response rate of 28%, of which 81% were male, 18% were female, and 1% preferred not to say.

In total, 45% – nearly 1 in 2 trainers – met the threshold indicative of at least one common mental disorder. Specifically, symptoms associated with depression were identified in 41% of respondents, while 38% showed signs of adverse alcohol use, 26% showed signs of psychological distress, and 18% reported symptoms associated with generalized anxiety.

Career dissatisfaction, lower levels of social support and financial difficulties increased the likelihood of trainers meeting the criteria for depression, psychological distress and generalized anxiety.

Dr Lewis King, with the Waterford Institute of Technology, and his fellow researchers said the study is the first to highlight the prevalence of symptoms tied with common mental disorders among racehorse trainers in Ireland and identify related risk factors.

The authors noted that only a fifth of surveyed trainers indicated they had sought support for their personal or emotional problems.

“A lack of help-seeking among males has been documented within the literature, which often relates to masculinity and conforming to certain ‘masculinity scripts’, but also the stigma linked to seeking and accessing professional support,” the study team noted.

“Indeed, in the present study, a greater percentage of female trainers (32%) had previously sought help in comparison to male trainers (19%).”

Discussing their findings, the researchers said exploring factors that may inhibit racehorse trainers from accessing support services represents an important future direction of research.

Two-thirds of trainers in the survey, which was carried out in 2019, reported financial difficulties. Trainers were between five and 16 times more likely to meet the criteria for distress, depression, or generalized anxiety if experiencing financial difficulties.

Past research has shown that racehorse trainers report significantly lower financial wellbeing scores in comparison to non-trainers – for example, other individuals working within the racing industry.

“Thus, financial difficulties appear to be a key stressor for racehorse trainers, with issues around staffing levels and wages, cash flow, levels of debt, not obtaining enough work (e.g., number of horses in training) to cover financial outgoings, increasing costs, and poor prize money.”

Many trainers cannot solely rely on training fees and prize money to support their business and are usually required to partake in other forms of business activity such as buying and selling horses, further emphasizing the unpredictability of life as a racehorse trainer.

“Consequently, organizations and key stakeholders might consider the impact that financial difficulties can have on an individual’s mental health.

“Workshops, support programmes, and training modules that include business advice and information relating to managing periods of financial adversity would be useful given the prevalence of trainers experiencing financial difficulties.”

Greater levels of work dissatisfaction were associated with meeting the threshold for distress, depression and generalized anxiety, with 28% reporting dissatisfaction with their careers.

This figure is greater than the 16% previously reported among racehorse trainers in another study, the researchers noted.

In total, trainers in the present study dissatisfied with their careers were between 3.4 and 8.3 times more likely to meet the criteria for distress, depression, or generalized anxiety. Career dissatisfaction measures may therefore be useful as an early screening measure to identify mental health issues or challenges.

“Nevertheless, career satisfaction among racehorse trainers appears high, with 72% classified as satisfied with their careers.

“One potential reason for this is that working with horses may act as a stress buffer for the trainers, with research highlighting the positive impact working with horses can have on an individual’s mental health.”

Further research is needed to identify other areas that may contribute to the career satisfaction of trainers, they said.

Trainers reported moderate to high levels of perceived social support, which appeared to serve as a protective factor for meeting the criteria for distress, depression and generalized anxiety.

“This may be due to the close-knit nature of the horseracing industry, wherein significant others and family members often work alongside one another.

“Indeed, anecdotally, a host of trainers currently working in Ireland have continued the family business when a relative has retired from the sport.”

The authors acknowledged that, with a survey response rate of 28%, it is possible that the responses were not fully representative of the larger racehorse trainer population in Ireland.

The researchers said identifying and implementing specific bespoke interventions for racehorse trainers is a challenge until the research and understanding of the varying areas of mental health and mental illness within this group are better understood.

“As such, future research may consider a broader approach given the nuances and unique nature of a career as a racehorse trainer, moving beyond the presence of symptoms, examining other areas reported to impact mental health (for example, identity, stigma), as well as the possible development of bespoke interventions and support structures.”

The study team comprised King, Sarah Jane Cullen and Ciara Losty, with the Waterford Institute of Technology; Siobhan O’Connor, with Dublin City University; Adrian McGoldrick and Jennifer Pugh, with the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board; and Giles Warrington, with the University of Limerick.

Lewis King, Sarah Jane Cullen, Siobhan O’Connor, Adrian McGoldrick, Jennifer Pugh, Giles Warrington, Ciara Losty,
Racehorse Trainer Mental Health: Prevalence and Risk Factors,
Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, Volume 101, 2021, 103423, ISSN 0737-0806, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jevs.2021.103423.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.

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