During this year’s spring and fall meetings at Keeneland several jockeys willingly turned themselves into lab rats. The riders took part in an on-going initiative at the University of Kentucky (UK)’s Sports Medicine Research Institute (SMRI), where researchers believe they can pinpoint ways for a rider to maximize their potential.
The study, called the Jockey and Equestrian Initiative (JEI), began as a way to learn more about concussions and concussion testing for riders. The university’s work took on an entire new life after researchers met with riders at a Jockeys’ Guild assembly and riders told them they wanted to learn about much more than dealing with concussions. The JEI has become a Petri dish for studying everything from a jockey’s reaction time to their grip strength, flexibility and balance to their fitness level. The goal is to get a baseline assessment for ideal jockey performance.
While all aspects of the study are important, the most promising aspect is areas that involve the reaction time of jockeys. The UK researchers don’t believe that reaction time is purely a natural impulse and, rather, is something that can improve with training. A jockey who is ultra alert and ready to react instantly to what is going on around him or her in a race will likely be a better, safer jockey.
It is all part of a scientific way to measure something–the performances of jockeys–that has never been put to a serious test. As part of the information gathering process, the jockeys are hooked up to tiny electrodes and put aboard a mechanical horse named Charlie. They ride in a two-minute simulated race and are given instant feedback via a small computer screen, which records such factors as how they shift their weight and pull on the reins.
If the studies find that a jockey’s reaction time is below those of an elite rider, they will be given performance-based activities to train them up to that level.
“It would be like anybody’s reaction times,” said principal investigator Kimberly Tumlin, Ph.D. “It is a visual motor coordination and so it is something you can train, to have that better hand-eye coordination. Instead of thinking about reacting, you are trained to react. It is taking a clinical sports medicine approach to form a solution, an athletic solution.”
Improving the reaction times of jockeys would no doubt make the sport safer for riders as jockeys who can react more quickly to the dangers that surround them are less likely to be involved in spill. The researchers believe that might also make racing safer for the horses, who can be injured if involved in an accident.
“The jockeys have said they can positively impact horse safety if they are fit and able to have high reaction time and foresee potential incidents,” Tumlin said.
In addition to being put aboard the mechanical horse, jockeys are tested for such things as body fat percentage and their fitness level. They are asked about their nutrition, weight loss, their training programs, their injury history.
“They’re doing a lot of research to help jockeys be in a safer environment and to protect our careers a lot better,” said jockey Sophie Doyle, who took part in the testing. “They’re doing phenomenal research that all the jockeys should be getting into and being a part of. It can only benefit us. What I learned most from this was about fitness. We did a lot of tests that covered strength, fitness and stability. It was really interesting to learn about your strength and fitness and how you can do better in those areas.”
The testing began in 2018, and Tumlin says they are in the beginning phases of what is an extensive test that could last for as many as three years and will also include exercise riders. They want to test 60 individuals–20 experienced riders, 20 novice riders and 20 exercise riders.
“Before we started this, there were jockeys already having internal discussions about how to train and mentor the upcoming riders,” Tumlin said. “It just hadn’t been formalized. I think we have an amazing opportunity here in the lab and at UK to be a central point. One of the questions I always have is what among what we are doing is most useful. I’m always trying to get feedback from the jockeys and so far they’ve been really excited about what we are doing.”
So can a jockey who takes part in the UK tests and absorbs the knowledge gained by being part of the program outride those who don’t? Tumlin says it’s too early to tell, but is optimistic that those who become involved with the program will thrive.
“We’ve had some trainers ask us that, if their jockeys will get better,” she said. “We don’t have the evidence to make any claims because we are early in study. But it should be similar to other sporting events, where you know that athletes going through specific training programs have an advantage. The feedback that we get from jockeys is that they can impact their performances by training, specifically through the reaction time. We want to make reaction time muscle memory versus something they have to think about when riding.”
The Jockey and Equestrian Initiative is one of four major research initiatives housed at the Sports Medicine Research Institute. The SMRI opened its doors in June 2017 and is supported in part by a $4.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense.