Any longtime rider of horses will tell you: It's not a question of whether you will fall off but when. For jockeys, the question becomes not whether they'll get hurt, but how badly (or for how long they'll be out of the saddle, going without pay, while they recover). A new laboratory at the University of Kentucky's Sports Medicine Research Institute will endeavor to reduce those injuries and help riders recover more completely when the inevitable happens.
Top jockeys John Velazquez, Javier Castellano, Julien Leparoux, Sophie Doyle, and Jose Ortiz took a tour of the lab earlier this month and tested out some of its new equipment as part of the Institute's Jockey and Equestrian Initiative (JEI). Still in its early stages, the JEI endeavors to bring together multiple disciplines to research and help assess musculoskeletal, neurological, nutritional, and physiological needs of riders.
Compared to other types of human athletes, equestrians are poorly-studied and don't have as many health care resources available to them, according to Dr. Carl Mattacola, associate dean of academic and faculty affairs at the University of Kentucky.
“Jockeys and equestrians don't have access like other athletes,” said Mattacola. “Many of your children have access to better healthcare at their high schools or middle schools than our professional jockeys and other equestrians do. There's limited research in this area, and much more vibrant, robust research in other areas like football, baseball, basketball.”
And that's a challenge because professional jockeys have a unique set of needs, from their need to maintain incredible strength at a low body weight to their high rate of injury. UK officials say they've been adapting existing research on other sports to jockeys when possible, but it isn't one-to-one.
Then of course, there's the hot topic of concussions in jockeys – the risk of head injuries and their lasting impact on a jockey's function if untreated. Mattacola's group has been responsible for taking baseline concussion testing for jockeys at Keeneland over the past few years. The track made it a requirement last year for all riders to get a baseline test before they were permitted to ride, in order to help assess changes in a jockey's cognitive function after a fall. Equipment at the lab can help jockeys' medical teams get more detail on baseline function, assess concussion recovery, and improve balance and coordination for a rider who has suffered a concussion.
Velazquez also stepped into this spherical machine with a movable platform which responds to tiny shifts in his weight. This can also be used to test a rider's balance after a concussion, and to help their brain recover after a head injury.
During the tour, the jockeys tested out a series of machines for gathered stakeholders and media. One machine in the lab measures strength in targeted muscle groups by having riders pull or push a lever with their arm or leg to isolate weak areas and test for symmetry. Another combines a balance ball with a computer program that can map a user's stability as they stand and crouch on the ball, which mimics the rock and flow of a horse.
Perhaps the most impressive machine was a mechanical horse custom built and shipped from the United Kingdom which mimics the motion of a live animal and responds to a rider's motion to go faster or slower, or to turn when the reins are pulled. As jockeys rode a virtual race, a chart on the wall in front of them displayed the amount of weight and pressure they applied to spots on the horse's back, shoulders, flanks, and mouth (via the reins). It also charted the rider's motion and showed whether it's synchronous with the horse's stride. The machine can also be used to detect whip action and reveal whether a rider's riding crop strike is above a designated force.
Javier Castellano takes a spin aboard a special kind of mechanical horse which simulates a gallop and responds to changes in his balance and use of the reins. The screen in front of him shows his synchronization with the horse's motion, his balance, and more.
Javier Castellano, who admitted he broke a sweat after a couple of minutes on the mechanical horse, said the action was very realistic to a racing Thoroughbred, although the machine's stride was slightly longer than what he's used to.
A fourth machine places users on top of a platform and underneath a spherical screen on which moving images and lines are projected. Researchers can change the motion of the images on the screen and of the platform, allowing them to assess a subject's balance and ability to recover from changes to the platform. Most jockeys made the exercise look simple, but researchers say for someone with head trauma, it's a challenge which can quickly reveal weaknesses without putting the user in danger.
Mattacola said all of this is aimed at research and injury recovery but also at helping riders target fitness. While that may seem like a purely performance-focused endeavor, fitness can also reduce injury.
Here, John Velazquez tests out a balance ball with a sensor measuring his stability. The sensor is projecting variations in his balance onto a screen in front of him. Fellow rider Julien Leparoux joins in at the end to 'help test his reaction time'
Remi Bellocq, retired jockey, JEI advisory board member, and executive director of the North American Racing Academy, stresses the importance of fitness with students in his riding classes, whether or not they plan to become jockeys. As muscles tire, Bellocq said riders' balance is reduced and they're less likely to endure a runaway horse or a sideways spook.
“I tell our kids if you want to be a professional athlete, act like it,” said Bellocq. “If you're going to be on the racetrack, galloping horses and getting paid for it, you're a professional athlete. Being on a horse doesn't make you any more or less of an athlete. That's the big hurdle.”
Mattacola and Bellocq agree the technology can be used to help riders in other disciplines, including non-professionals who may be less fit and find themselves at greater risk of a fall and injury. Bellocq has already reached out to local eventing trainers in hopes they will bring their students in for assessments. Mattacola has built a la carte pricing for those interested in getting data on their strength, balance, oxygen capacity, or other measurements.
“You see million-dollar jockeys whose watches cost more than the Equicizer. Let's think beyond that,” suggested Bellocq. “What about the kid with a backyard horse who rides spring and summer? By the end of their third [horse] trial, that horse is getting in good shape and that kid is afraid and they don't know how to manage that. If the instructor suggests they come here, do some strength testing, they can give them some things they can do in the gym to help.
“Beyond the research and everything else, this needs to be accessible to everyone.”
For now, the Institute is looking for government and private funding partners to help finance its research and get the word out about the many services it offers. Mattacola is hoping news of the lab's services will travel fast, if only because there's nothing else like them available to jockeys in the U.S.
“We've got equipment that you won't find in many places, and certainly no place close. You're going to have to go a few states away to find something as creative and focused as this,” he said.