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    The Challenges of Trainers' Mental Wellbeing
The Challenges of Trainers' Mental Wellbeing
A jockey on a horse Source: Midjourney

The Challenges of Trainers' Mental Wellbeing

Training racehorses is inherently stressful. While this is manageable for many, it can lead to significant issues. In contemporary discussions on occupational health, mental well-being is a key focus. Although horse racing often seems behind other sectors, increasing attention is being paid to the stress faced by its participants, who operate under public scrutiny.

Jockeys as Pioneers in Mental Health Support

In Britain and Ireland, jockeys were the first to benefit from support systems introduced by their trade associations and governing bodies. They have been encouraged to discuss their struggles with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, helping to break down the stigma and pave the way for trainers to seek similar support. Public discussions about mental health issues among jockeys have opened pathways for trainers to follow.

Jokey with a horse. Source: Midjourney
Jokey with a horse. Source: Midjourney

Leading Research from Australia

Australia, Britain, and Ireland have been at the forefront of research into trainers' mental health. The initial studies by Speed and Anderson in 2008 for Racing Victoria found that "two-thirds of trainers never or rarely had one day off per week" and faced significant pressure from owners, financial burdens, and the responsibility of keeping horses healthy. These findings resonated across all racing jurisdictions, setting a precedent for further research. In July 2018, another Australian study on the "Sleep and psychological well-being of racehorse industry workers" revealed that trainers had higher levels of depression and anxiety and less sleep compared to other industry workers and the general population.

A man with horse. Source: Midjourney
A man with a horse. Source: Midjourney

British Research on Trainers' Stressors

Simone Seer's 2018 MBA dissertation from the University of Liverpool, supported by Racing Welfare, used qualitative research to identify common stressors for British trainers. These included financial worries, bureaucratic challenges, and the pressure to keep horses healthy and perform well. Trainers reported symptoms of mental ill health due to emotional strain, sleep deprivation, and isolation, leading to issues like low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and recurrent headaches.

Mental Health of Irish Trainers

In 2021, research on Irish racehorse trainers published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science found a high prevalence of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and problematic alcohol use, exacerbated by career dissatisfaction, financial difficulties, and low social support. Ryan McElligott, Chief Executive of the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association, highlighted the competitive nature of training and the increasing costs that keep training fees low, making the profession particularly challenging.

Challenges in France and Smaller Racing Nations

In France, trainers face similar pressures, with high business costs and performance anxiety exacerbated by financial dependence on prize money. Gavin Hernon, representing the Association des Entraineurs de Galop (AEDG) at the European Trainers Federation (ETF), mentioned that France Galop, primarily a regulatory body, might not include trainers' health and well-being in its remit. Trainers in smaller racing nations, like the Czech Republic, face additional challenges, such as funding issues and a decrease in racehorses and racing days, as noted by Karin Lutmanova.

Support Initiatives in Britain and Ireland

To address these challenges, Britain and Ireland have implemented various support initiatives. The National Trainers Federation (NTF) in Britain, in collaboration with Racing Welfare, has proposed a confidential support service offering mental health, physical health, sports psychology, business management, HR, legal advice, financial assistance, and time management support. A pilot program started in 2023 involves sports psychologist Michael Caulfield and former trainer David Arbuthnot engaging with trainers in their working environments to break down barriers and encourage them to seek help.

Community-Based Support in Ireland

In Ireland, the Industry Assistance Programme provides access to counselling and therapy, with Senior Medical Officer Jennifer Pugh playing a key role in offering support at race meetings. Plans are in place to recruit wellbeing "champions" to provide community-based support. Pugh, who contributed to the "prevalence and risk factor" paper, emphasised the importance of trusted figures' ineffective support mechanisms. She noted that her background as an amateur rider and racecourse doctor made her a recognisable figure, which helped trainers feel comfortable approaching her.

The Need for Structured Support Systems

Despite some progress, there remains a gap in formalised support for trainers, with many still hesitant to seek help due to the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Future strategies should focus on restructuring the sport, trainers' business models, and professional development to reduce mental health risks and the need for intervention. McElligott observed that trainers, being a traditional cohort with conservative values, often view seeking help as a sign of weakness and prefer to rely on close-knit community support. This cultural aspect underscores the necessity of integrating mental health support into the daily lives of trainers, making it more accessible and less stigmatised.

Moving Forward: A Collaborative Approach

The industry's future efforts must include a collaborative approach that involves governing bodies, trade associations, and mental health professionals. Developing a comprehensive support network that addresses both immediate mental health needs and long-term occupational challenges is crucial. As the British experience shows, building something new and expecting people to come is less effective than outreach and engagement within the community. By fostering a supportive environment and encouraging open conversations, the racing industry can better support its trainers and ensure their well-being.

Race Preparation. Source: Midjourney
Race Preparation. Source: Midjourney

This detailed examination of the mental health challenges faced by racehorse trainers and the ongoing efforts to support them highlights the need for continued attention and action. As the sport evolves, so too must the support systems that underpin the health and well-being of those who dedicate their lives to it.


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