The pressures on professional riders are well-documented and in the wake of Liam Treadwell’s death the sport plans to do even more to offer support to those affected
“I absolutely hated racing that season,” says Harry Teal, reflecting on the time, just a couple of years ago, when he was struggling to establish himself as a jockey while in the grip of a serious depression. Not that he recognised the illness for what it was; instead, he tried to soldier on without help for the best part of a year.
“I felt there was a tremendous amount of pressure put on me. I was going racing and thinking, I’m going to do things wrong … and then I would do them wrong. And then I’d feel worse because I’d got it wrong. Relationships at home were falling apart, friends, family. I was distancing myself from everyone. I would go home and fall into a dark hole.”
The pressures of life as a jockey have long been known. They must get rides, have success, keep trainers and owners happy, keep their weight down, bounce back quickly from injury and drive themselves hundreds of miles every day, even if there is only one mount waiting for them at the journey’s end.
The list of travails has become so familiar by restatement over the decades, it tends to go unchallenged. This is how it has always been. But recent years have brought an increasing number of riders, Teal among them, who are prepared to describe the toll those pressures take.
It is an issue racing was forced to confront last week, following the death at 34 years of Liam Treadwell, who had won Grand National glory aboard Mon Mome 11 years before. “Treaders”, as he was known to some of his fellow jocks, was a popular figure. Although he was never among the most in-demand riders he had work and enjoyed successes, including at the Cheltenham Festival. But peace of mind eluded him.
“The pressures were the big thing and wanting to please people, and of course you can’t please everyone,” he said in a TV interview in 2018. His worries became such that the prospect of riding a favourite the next day would give him a sleepless night.
Just four months ago, Treadwell was a pall bearer at the funeral of his friend James Banks, who had quit the saddle in 2018. That both men should end their lives in their mid-30s has been a cause for grief but also for serious introspection in the sport, with questions being asked about the load that jockeys have to bear and the help available to them.
There seems no question of these being isolated cases in an otherwise healthy sport. A survey organised by the charity Racing Welfare last year found 87% of jockey respondents had experienced “stress, anxiety or depression” within the previous 12 months. Researchers at Liverpool John Moores University, who carried out the work, found the major concerns among jockeys they spoke to was that their line of work is a lonely one, financially precarious and relentless in its demands.
As senior jockeys such as Tom Scudamore pointed out last week, help is available to jockeys who realise they need it. Support structures have been built up by their trade body, the Professional Jockeys Association, and also by the Injured Jockeys Fund, with its “hub” buildings in Lambourn, Newmarket and Malton providing access to psychologists as well as rehab facilities for broken bodies.
“What we’re offering and what we’re doing is being enhanced all the time,” says Paul Struthers, chief executive of the PJA. As a director of the Professional Players Federation and chair of its mental health committee, he is well placed to assess what racing does in this area. “Other sports were miles ahead of us four years ago. I would say the provision we have now is at least on a par with what they have.”
The PJA has arranged a telephone helpline, offering jockeys 24/7 access to trained counsellors and can fund counselling sessions if necessary. Through educational videos, its website and WhatsApp messages, it seeks to raise its members’ awareness of the importance of good mental health.
It is working with the organisation Changing Minds to develop what might loosely be described as mental health first-aid training for those who work around jockeys, such as valets, physiotherapists and agents. “It’ll be a bespoke training,” Struthers says, “equipping them with the skills to be able to recognise people who might be struggling and knowing exactly what the referral structures and routes are.
“For many people, that first conversation with a friend might be enough. They might not need counselling. I know it happens already with the physios on-course, that just listening to a jockey while they’re treating them can be enough. But others will need some more and it is all there.”
Struthers is encouraged that a number of jockeys have been prepared to discuss their struggles with mental health and believes any stigma attached to seeking help is now much more imagined than real. In the cause of promoting openness on the topic, he acknowledges his own experience with depression stemming from a bereavement which, many years ago, led to an attempt to end his own life.
“I got lucky,” he remembers. “I was taking tablets and thankfully was doing it with disgusting liqueur that made me sick very quickly. It’s a long time ago but I was just fed up of feeling fed up and thankfully got lucky.
“I should have got help sooner. A friend took me to one side in a really nice, warm, friendly way, but also challenging … that was the big difference. I remember that first counselling session where you didn’t stop crying, properly sobbing like I was watching Forrest Gump for the first time … just the weight off your shoulders, walking back from that session. It’s not for everyone but you become quite evangelical about it.”
Since Treadwell’s death, Struthers has heard from a number of senior jockeys, asking if there is anything they can do that might make a difference for other riders in difficulties. “Because they’ve been there themselves and they want to help.” Initially, they will be asked to “sense-check” the proposals from Changing Minds.
“We clearly couldn’t help James and Liam and that is going to stay with everyone that was remotely involved,” Struthers says. “That will never go away, that thought of could we have done more?”
But for Teal, the system worked. A physiotherapist picked up on his symptoms and urged him to take it up with the PJA, which arranged counselling. “They got me back on a path where I realised why I did the job, why I worked with horses.”
In the end, his weight forced him to quit and move into training alongside his father. “But the last year, I was enjoying it, loving every minute of it.
“I thought everyone’s going to look down on me, they’re going to think I’m weak. But when I opened up and spoke to a few of the lads, they were so supportive. Whether they’d had a touch of it, they were all there to offer help and advice. It is a very competitive atmosphere in the weighing room, of course it is, but there’s a bond that keeps us all together.
“If they catch it early, they can just talk to someone like me, they don’t have to go through the whole counselling like I did. That’s key. The more people you can catch early, the more we’ll get on.”
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.