Elsewhere on the site you can read about what happens to horses if they pick up an injury during a race, as well as the types of injuries that are common for them to suffer. Horses aren’t the only ones taking part in races, however, with jockeys also prone to picking up numerous injuries during their racing career. Falling from a horse is an obvious cause of injury, but what else do jockeys need to be concerned about?
Though fatalities for jockeys aren’t common, they do happen. It is entirely fair to say that jockeys are taking their lives into their hands every time they climb onto a horse, but it’s the other, non-fatal injuries that can be career-altering for many. From broken bones to fractures, consistent injuries for jockeys can result in their lives changing forever. Here’s a look at the most common injuries jockeys suffer during their racing careers.
Most Common Injuries (United States)
In 2000, the Jama Network released some research into injuries suffered by jockeys in the United States of America between January 1st 1993 and December 31st 1996. In total, there were 6,545 injuries during that time, taken for a jockey population of somewhere in the region of 2,700 people. That equated to 606 injuries per 1,000 jockey years and the breakdown of areas that suffered the injuries was as follows:
- 18.8% to the head or neck
- 15.5% to a leg
- 11% to the arm or hand
- 10.7% to a foot or ankle
- 10.7% to the back
- 9.6% to the shoulder
The rest of the injuries occurred in other areas of the body. One of the most interesting parts of the study was the places in which they occurred on the racecourse, with 35.1% of them coming when they entered, left or were within a starting gate; something that doesn’t affect jump racing jockeys in the United Kingdom. Being thrown from the horse was responsible for 41.8% of head injuries, 55.1% of back injuries and 39.6% of chest injuries.
Most Common Injuries (UK & Ireland)
The obvious question, then, is whether or not the injuries suffered by jockeys in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland differ greatly from those suffered by American jockeys. In the UK and Ireland, most flat races begin in a starting gate, for example, but jump races don’t. The exciting and demanding nature of horse racing as a sport means that injury rates are high, but how did they work between 1992 and 2000?
The reason those dates were chosen was that considered changes were introduced to the industry both in terms of the monitoring of the injuries suffered during races and the level of protective equipment worn by jockeys. On top of that, the medical arrangements at racecourses also improved prior to 1992.
British horse racing is essentially divided into flat and jump racing, with jump racing arguably the more dangerous. Each format comes with different risks, though. In flat racing top speeds are higher and so a fall can result in a greater impact with the ground (which also tends to be firmer), whereas with jump racing top speeds are lower and the ground generally softer but there is more chance of a horse falling onto a jockey when jumping fences.
When it comes to numbers, it’s worth bearing in mind that in the year 2000 166 jockeys had full registration to take part in flat racing and 223 did so for jump racing. There were 203 apprentices in flat racing and the same number for jumps, whilst 462 amateur jockeys were registered to take part in flat racing and 468 to do so over jumps. It’s worth noting that the sport is dominated by male jockeys.
During the period studied, the maximum number of rides that a flat jockey could do in a single year was 998 if they had a full licence and 748 if they were an apprentice. In the jump discipline, jockeys could run in a maximum of 858 races per season with a full licence and 374 if they were a conditional or apprentice jockey. There is other information available on the study, such as the average height of fences and so on.
Racing in Great Britain is regulated by the Jockey Club, which also organises the medical arrangements on racecourses. Racecourses have to comply with a set of instructions given to them by the organisation. The analysis of injuries came from 745,896 rides in Great Britain and Ireland, with 23,525 falls and 4,248 injuries between 1992 and 2000. It clearly shows the difference when jump racing is involved:
|Type Of Racing||Injury Incidence Per Ride||Injury Incidence Per Fall|
|Flat In Great Britain||0.17%||40.4%|
|Flat In Ireland||0.15%||39.9%|
|Jump In Great Britain||1.2%||17.7%|
|Jump In Ireland||0.6%||12.3%|
It’s interesting to note, and probably goes against common theory, that a fall in flat racing was much more likely to result in an injury than one in jump racing. The positive news is that just one fatality was experienced across Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland in the world of horse racing between 1992 and 2000. The next thing to look at is a more specific sense of what the injuries were, with the following applying to flat racing:
|Year||Fracture||Dislocation||Concussions||Soft Tissue Injury|
Unfortunately, the exact information on the type of soft tissue injuries suffered wasn’t available. It’s also likely that there were more than are included in the table, with a difference in how such data was collected to blame. Here’s the same set of information but for jump racing:
|Year||Fracture||Dislocation||Concussions||Soft Tissue Injury|
As with flat racing, specific information on the type of soft tissue issue isn’t readily forthcoming. The Take Home Message from the report was as follows:
“The spectrum of injury in horse racing includes fractures, head injuries (minor and major), dislocations, and deaths. Because of the forces involved, personal protective equipment can only hope to mitigate some of these injuries. Those providing medical cover at such events should be fully aware of the risks involved, be suitably trained and qualified to carry out their duties, and have immediate access to the appropriate equipment and drugs to manage acute, life threatening trauma.”
All jockeys accept that they are putting themselves at major risk of serious injury every time they take part in a race, which was demonstrated by the minute’s silence held ahead of Future Champions Day at Newmarket back in 2014. The silence was held to remember Carly-Mae Pye, a 26-year-old, and Caitlin Forrest, 19, in Australia, as well as 17-year-old apprentice Juan Saez in America. All three died in the space of three days.
The idea of being injured or even paralysed are accepted as occupational hazards of working in the horse racing industry, given that they’re racing on animals that way about half a tonne. History has taught us how deadly horse racing can be, with all of William the Third, William the Conqueror and Ghenkis Khan reportedly dying after falling from their horses, though each was, of course, in a much different time.
Between 1997 and 2008, as many as 37 venters died in cross country falls from the Pony Club, not making the above tables because of the nature of the events and the horses. Between 1980 and 2014, 12 jockeys died in racing, with eight being during jump races and four courtesy of racing on the flat. It is a tragic statistic, but one that jockeys are all too aware of when they get into the saddle.
Part of the reason the number of deaths of jockeys has dropped since the 1980s comes in the form of the protective equipment that they have to wear. On top of this, the racecourses themselves have been updated, with concrete posts replaced with plastic ones and plastic rails, meaning that if jockeys crash into them they’re less likely to be injured. Given that many ride at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour, this is a good thing.
It is definitely the protective equipment that has been the biggest change for jockeys, though. Every jockey that takes part in a race is required to wear a protective helmet that meets the European Standard EN 1384.1996. These have to be fastened securely at all times and the wearing of them has been compulsory since 1996, with the standard of helmet available since 1993. Most jockeys have won them since 1994.
Something that is difficult to tell for spectators is the fact that jockeys also wear body protectors, which meet the European Standard EN: 13158.2000. These have been compulsory since 2001, though jockeys have always had to wear body protectors. Prior to the European Standard, the quality of body protector varied greatly, including the fact that flat racing jockeys wore much lighter protectors than jump racing jockeys.
At every race meeting in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, two trained doctors have to be on duty to attend to the needs of the jockeys alone. Jockeys have a ‘medical passport’, which is viewed by racecourse authorities when the jockeys first arrive at the course on a race day. Any falls and injuries are recorded in the passport, as are the results of any examinations of a jockey for whatever reason.
In addition to the above criteria that is in place for the physical protection of jockeys, all jockeys are covered by the Professional Riders Insurance Scheme. This provides injured jockeys with weekly payments of up to £1,100, which continues for up to a maximum of 78 weeks. This means that jockeys that get injured whilst riding will not have to worry about their finances during a recovery period.
Poorly Paid & Always At Risk
Whilst protective equipment offers some breathing space for jockeys and insurance allows them to still get paid even when injured, the reality is that jockeys are among the worst-paid and yet seriously inured of all professional athletes. Even though horse racing around the world has a huge amount of money invested in it, the people that ride the horses can earn as little as £25 for taking on a ride.
In America, the most prestigious races pay a little bit more but it’s still not a huge amount. Unless a rider manages to finish in the top five of the Kentucky Derby, for example, then the most that they can expect to take home is about $500. Two of the legs of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, will see the poorer jockeys take home just $100, which is equatable to what pro-basketball players get for daily meals.
In 2015, 71 riders were being aided by the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund in America, but even that only pays around $1,000 every month and so is not seen as an adequate solution for sports people injured gravely in the pursuit of a victory. Ramon Dominguez was one of the world’s top jockeys when he was forced to retire in 2014 after being thrown from his horse and kicked, showing it’s not just amateur jockeys at risk of serious injury.
In 2014, Ruby Walsh, who is one of the most famous jockeys in the world with a host of top-class race wins to his name, caused controversy when he said, “You can replace a horse, you can’t replace a human being. That’s my feeling on it.” Whilst it was a crass and insensitive thing to say, it certainly made people ask the question about whether jockeys re more important to the industry than the horses the ride and should be looked after accordingly.