Physio Kevin Hunt loved the high and lows of working with jockeys at a dozen English racecourses
Editor Ian A McMillan caught up with physiotherapist, pain specialist and author Kevin Hunt, who mentioned in an earlier interview with PhysioUpdate that he had gained valuable experience working in the racing industry.
Kevin, how did you get involved in the horse racing industry?
When I was doing a Masters in sports medicine at the University of Nottingham 20 years ago a fellow student was a doctor at the races. He put me in touch with the Professional Jockeys Association, which was looking for a physio at the time. I did an interview and then some shadowing at a couple of race meetings to see if it was a good fit and, very quickly, I found myself working at the races.
I covered 12 racecourses during my time: Newmarket, Huntingdon, Nottingham were the main ones, but I also did meetings at Aintree, Folkestone, Kempton, Market Rasen, Southwell, Stratford, Towcester, Warwick and Worcester.
Did you have to adapt your physiotherapy skills into a new area?
Yes. Racing is a unique sport. The shape and profile of a jockey is not typical of most sports. I had to quickly learn more about nutrition, and the impacts of dehydration on the tissues to understand how their bodies work and how this can influence clinical presentations. The facilities at some racecourses were less than adequate and you could find yourself in a toilet trying to get some privacy to treat someone – despite the champagne flowing outside. As many sports physios will tell you, it’s not always as glamorous behind the scenes, but it is great fun.
What were your most exciting experiences – and why?
Generally, I covered more flat racing than jumps but working at the Grand National at Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool was a unique experience. Working in horse racing is a bit like being part of a travelling circus – the show must go on every day and every day is a new one.
Although in racing everyone is competing against each other and there are, of course, personality clashes, everyone understands the game they are in. There is always an element of danger and a real threat of injury which creates a certain atmosphere within the sport. The Grand National takes that to a different level. It’s an atypical race in comparison to the rest of the season. The stakes are higher and the threat of serious injury larger.
Of course, people want to win, and it can be life changing if you do but the result itself is not as important as everyone getting home safely. There’s something special about being inside the weighing room to experience that unspoken feeling but you have to experience the circus of the rest of the year to appreciate it. It's remember to remember those highs and lows and the slog of racing in the back end of nowhere to no crowd on a wet Tuesday as well.
I see a lot of high achievers, jockeys included, and the challenge now – or goal for me – is to help them see the bigger picture in terms of their health and wellbeing [Kevin Hunt]
Jockeys must face many pressures – what are they like to work with?
Jockeys are great to work with because there is no advantage to being injured. They are desperate to get back to work as quickly as possible so they don’t miss out on that superstar horse that might bag them a Derby at Epsom or an Arc [Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe] in Paris.
That has its challenges too as they want to get back quicker than is sometimes possible, but you learn a whole lot about what the human body is capable of which helps hugely in a normal clinic setting.
Jockeys work extremely long hours, and the schedule is relentless. There is racing almost every day of the year and the distances they cover up and down the country, as well as internationally, are phenomenal. In addition to the early starts, late finishes and endless hours on the road, jockeys have to manage their weight and make different weights on different days and even different weights on the same day. That’s every day: not just for a one-off event or once a week.
This constant battle to manage their weight has huge implications for their bodies and how susceptible they are to injury. All of that on top of a sport where you can be travelling more than 40 mph on hard surfaces and a clip of heals can catapult you into the ground and perhaps 20 other horses could come trampling across you. There are not many sports where you are followed by two ambulances. Jockeys can be doing this seven or eight times a day, seven days a week. The pressure of that affects all of them at some point.
And what about working with horses?
You’d better as the vets about that one. I stay away from the horses!
Are you still practising in the racing field – and what are your next challenges?
I don’t go racing anymore but I see plenty of jockeys in clinic. Away from the racecourse in the clinic environment we can explore bigger concepts outside of racing that can improve their performance on the track but also, importantly, their health and wellbeing for their life beyond racing.
I see a lot of high achievers – jockeys included – and the challenge now, or goal for me, is to help them see the bigger picture in terms of their health and wellbeing. How to aim for the things they are want without getting swallowed up by that pursuit at the sacrifice of their future selves. It sounds simple, doesn’t it!
Finally, how is your new book on pain being received?
It’s been a very pleasant surprise. You can never tell if these things are going to work but the feedback has been really positive and has come from unexcepted places. GPs and surgeons I didn’t previously know have been in touch to say they really liked it and will be using it with their patients and in their own lives to help manage their own wellbeing.
Patients from the clinic have been dropping in to get a signed copy and people in pain from various countries have been in touch to say it’s really helped them make sense of things and how it’s much more than a pain book. I’ve been invited on to podcasts because the hosts have come across the book somehow, so I’m busy learning how that works. The first few have been rambling waffling things but I’m sure I’ll become more coherent with practise!
Kevin Hunt runs the Spinal Physiotherapy & Sports Medicine Clinic in Cambridge.
Twitter: @SpinalphysioAuthor: Edited by Ian A McMillan