How Studying the 'Two-Legged Equine Athlete' Can Help Make Racing Safer for All

Sophie Doyle
Performance testing
Kimberly Tumlin and Sophie Doyle

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 28, 2019) – A new research initiative from the University of Kentucky Sports Medicine Research Institute is looking closely at jockey performance – and the work has implications not only for the jockeys themselves, but also for the thoroughbreds they ride.

The SMRI’s Jockey and Equestrian Initiative (JEI) launched in 2018 following a pilot study that sought to implement protocols for baseline concussion testing in jockeys. Now, the JEI is expanding to include a more holistic assessment of a jockey’s health through a wide range of performance testing, including body composition, flexibility, reaction time, leg and grip strength, and balance.

After testing the individual elements of their performance, the jockeys are covered with tiny electrodes and hop up on Charlie, the SMRI’s famous mechanical horse. Once they get their bearings – Charlie feels surprisingly similar to the real thing, they say – they participate in a two-minute simulation of racing in the Breeder’s Cup. Next to the horse, a small screen shows instant feedback on the ride, like how the rider shifts their weight or pulls the reins.   

The goal, says principal investigator Kimberly Tumlin, Ph.D., is to get a baseline assessment for ideal jockey performance.

“If we better understand what it takes to be a professional jockey from performance and risk factor perspectives, we can help the novice riders achieve a higher level of performance,” said Tumlin, an assistant professor of preventive medicine and environmental health in the UK College of Public Health.

But this work could also have implications for a huge problem plaguing the horse racing industry right now – the injuries and fatalities befalling both the horses and subsequently the jockeys in professional races. While the likely causes of these tragedies are multi-factorial, the dynamics that affect a jockey’s overall performance may play a role, says Scott Lephart, Ph.D., dean of the UK College of Health Sciences.

“We know that concussions can reduce reaction time, but we are also looking at things like the impact of fatigue, nutrition, weight loss and more,” Lephart said. “Jockeys have told us that they feel their reactions to the horses can help prevent falls, and part of our work involving assessing when they are more at risk for not reacting quickly enough.”

Tumlin agrees, noting that a jockey’s reaction in a tight situation can either lessen or worsen the outcome for everyone involved. By learning more about the mechanics of the most elite athletes, they can help improve the performance of all riders.

“For example, if a rider’s reaction time is lower than that of an elite jockey, we can provide them opportunities and performance-based activities to train them to that level,” she said.

Research is being done across the country to identify potential issues with the health of the horses themselves, but Lephart notes that the SMRI brings a different perspective to the conversation by focusing on “the two-legged equine athlete.” The overarching goal is to make the sport safer, both for the horses and the riders, and the jockeys themselves are helping lead the way with their willingness to participate.

Michaela Keener, a doctoral student in the UK College of Health Sciences, serves as the research administrative coordinator on the project. As the primary data collector, Keener says enthusiasm among the participating jockeys has been high. Once their data has been processed, Keener gives each rider a written report summarizing their results.

“Everyone that’s been in for testing so far has been pretty excited about it, especially once they see their report,” Keener said. “We’ve even had jockeys reach out to us about coming in after they’ve seen and heard the feedback from others.”

Performance testing and linking prior injury to performance gives the riders a chance to learn more about their own strengths and flaws. After coming in to the SMRI for performance testing earlier this year, veteran jockey Sophie Doyle noted that it was an experience every jockey should take advantage of.

“I was able to push my body to the limit and see how it was able to handle the pressure,” Doyle said. “Whether it is establishing a baseline of performance to understand where you are today, or if you are recovering from an injury and want to be able to test how you are recovering, the data they collect will provide insight which we have never had riding in America.”

The Jockey and Equestrian Initiative is one of four major research initiatives housed at the SMRI, building upon the 25+ years of research that came to UK in 2015 with the arrival of Dean Lephart. 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.

The 10,000-square-foot facility, part of the UK Nutter Training Facility on campus, conducts research into injury prevention and performance optimization for professional and collegiate athletes, the tactical athletes of the U.S. military, and physically active people of all ages in Kentucky and beyond.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

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