UNIQUE to the equine industry is the daily need for staff to meet required maximum weights. Commonly, weight-watching practices have been based on the shared knowledge and experience of senior professionals, which is often outdated and incorrect.

A Liverpool John Moores University research team identified that poor nutrition habits may be inherited from one generation of rider to the next. For example, up to 85% of current professional jockeys have a parent or sibling either still currently riding, or now retired, which contributes to the 63% of jockeys who admitted they preferred to seek weight-making and nutrition advice from their senior peers and retired elders, rather than a qualified nutritionist or dietitian.

Tried and tested

Many believe the best methods to make weight are the tried and tested practices that have been in common use for decades. The perceived success leads to an attitude of ‘it works for me’ and a reluctance to change or adopt new suggestions, and few consider the future consequences on their health in later years.

Dehydrating and starvation has been commonplace, despite increased awareness of these problems, and long periods in saunas and salt baths, laxatives and self-induced vomiting remain familiar practices for some, not all. The health implications associated with these include poor bone density, hormonal issues and impaired mood profile.

Dr George Wilson, Liverpool John Moores, conducted seven years of research into the health implications of extreme weight-making practices. He is well suited, having ridden as a National Hunt jockey in his youth.

“For my first ride, I lost a stone in five days to make 10st minimum weight, felt awful and I shouldn’t have been near a horse, let alone riding in a race,” he reflects.

Mental health is another major area of research that has revealed a connection to diet, and the clinical tests for measuring mood in lifestyle have shown Dr Wilson and his team that staff struggling to make weight “are not the happiest bunnies.” Furthermore, studies into concussion have shown that due to lower levels of the body’s natural chemical production to protect the brain, those suffering from depression are far more likely to suffer a concussion in a fall.

“You are what you eat,” says Dr Wilson. “Traditionally, how to make weight is to restrict food and even starve. When you’re hungry, you’re not in the best mood, and that has massive implications.

“There are many riders who now use science and understand energy balance, and employers have bought into this and recognise the benefits this has on their business. If your staff are happy, your horses are happy.”

This means re-educating and affecting change in an industry that isn’t renowned for embracing new ideas. “This is not unique to the horse world,” Dr Wilson says. “As shown in recent years in other weight-making sports like boxing and football, when the culture changes for the better the athlete welfare changes for the better. The industry now recognises this and is pulling together.”

According to National Health figures, one in six adults may be suffering from a mental health problem. The horse racing industry is probably unique in the candour currently shown by the many individuals who have come forward to speak of depression and this has led to a greater awareness and proactive approach to mental health.

The research of Dr Wilson and his team shows that the mental well-being of a professional jockey could be improved with dietary and exercise intervention, suggesting that dietary practices may be responsible for impaired mood profiles.

A high protein, low glycaemic index carbohydrate diet, for example dried beans, kidney beans and lentils, all non-starchy vegetables, and some starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, most fruit, and many whole grain breads and cereals, provides a total energy intake equivalent to resting metabolic rate, can facilitate fat loss whilst still maintaining lean tissue and improving performance markers.

Jockeys participating in Dr Wilson’s research completed a General Health Questionnaire, a highly reliable measure of psychological distress, capturing symptoms of depression, anxiety, social dysfunction, and loss of confidence. The data showed that prior to dietary intervention, 21.4% of the jockeys were suffering from depression or anxiety. This reduced from two out of 10, to one out of 10 following the dietary intervention, highlighting the importance of a good diet for stable staff.