Being a jockey means maintaining certain physical characteristics, but what effect does this have on the body? Caitlin Ganter spoke to exercise scientist Dr David Greene and discovered these small athletes face some big problems.
Some of the health risks of being a jockey are obvious. When a 50-kilogram rider is mounted on a half-tonne horse running at 60 kilometres per hour, a single slip can be deadly. But what about the hidden dangers?
Assistant Head of the School of Exercise Science, Dr David Greene, is conducting research into health risks lurking below the surface – by studying the musculoskeletal health of apprentice jockeys.
"I was initially drawn to the sport because jockeys place themselves at risk of compromised musculoskeletal health on a daily basis, and engage in practices that appear extreme to the general public such as caloric restriction, wasting practices, and high training loads."
He aims to develop strategies that reduce the risk of fractures, one of the most common injuries suffered by jockeys, as well as other risks to their physical health.
"When a rider is attempting to control a sprinting animal more than 12 times their body weight in a chronically energy-deficient and dehydrated state, they risk falling from the animal due to a lack of muscular strength and endurance.
"When a jockey slips, they become vulnerable to a number of injuries, including fractures, paralysis, or even death."
Funded by Work Cover NSW and supported by the Australian Jockey Association, it is anticipated the research will provide racing industry stakeholders with a greater understanding of bone health and injury prevention for apprentice jockeys.
"Essentially, this project allows us to understand more about an apprentice jockey's musculoskeletal health, growth, maturation, physical activity, injury status, and calcium and energy intake, and this helps us profile the physiological status of apprentice jockeys."
The project studies jockeys for 18 months of the average four-year apprenticeship, serially tracking their progress at six months, 12 months and 18 months.
"Apprentice jockeys are generally adolescent athletes engaging in high training loads during a rapid period of growth, and this can have deleterious effects on their musculoskeletal development.
"The average person has developed their peak bone mass by their mid-twenties, after which the ensuing decades are spent experiencing gradual bone loss."
Remaining physically active and engaging in sound nutrition practices can slow the rate of bone loss, but cannot reverse the process in the long term.
"Unfortunately jockeys are restricted in engaging in practices to improve their musculoskeletal health because activities such as resistance training builds muscle and increases weight – which is out of the question for a professional jockey.
"We are currently trying to secure funding to assess the influence of 12-month calcium and vitamin D supplementation in young male jockeys, which will allow us to ascertain if this type of intervention is beneficial to the musculoskeletal health of this highly vulnerable population."