‘Flipping’, depression, and the secret world of mental health in horseracing

As you soon as you switch on a live horse race, you can see the desire the jockeys have to be the best. Jockeys do everything they can to win the race. There tons of things that can change the race like fence height/depth, not getting out the traps cleanly and weather affecting. There are other things that affect the race, one being ‘flipping’.

I had never heard of this term before I looked in to it. Apparently, it is a weight-control method used by jockeys to self-induce vomiting. It has also been adopted by a worrying amount of young flat riders. In fact, in America, there are purpose built sinks to make the process of ‘flipping’ easier for jockeys.

Jockeys are under constant pressure to keep their weight low, travel long distances for races, suffer constant uncertainty of employment and long working hours. It is a very lonely world, and they don’t have a team around them like football, rugby or cricket players do.

As an example, one of the great jockeys in horse racing, Kieren Fallon, this month announced his retirement from the sport at the age of 51. This was due to his profound depression that he had apparently been battling for a number of years according to the Chief Medical Officer at the Irish Turf Club. This went largely unnoticed, but he was prescribed anti-depressants at the turn of the year during his examination for the annual license process. Unfortunately, his symptoms became worse and the decision came to retire from the sport altogether.

It is apparent though that the Professional Jockeys Association and British Horseracing Authority are doing everything they can to support their jockeys. The British Horseracing Authority have employed a dedicated Welfare Development Manager and signed up to the Mental Health Charter for Sport & Recreation. Both Racing Welfare and the Professional Jockeys Association provide 24-hour support counselling phone lines. Members have access to six free face-to-face therapy sessions along with support from the Injured Jockeys Fund.

This is a really innovative step to make a change in how these problems are dealt with, but what change is being made to help athletes feel comfortable in speaking out? It’s hard enough for you or I who are not in the media each week. For someone with a big fan following, professional commitments, and a reputation to maintain it is much harder. Using Kieren as an example, it is not surprising that his depression went unnoticed for so long as that tends to be the case for most people – but could more have been done to help if it was highlighted sooner?

We often forget that elite sports athletes are as susceptible, if not more so, to the same problems as anyone else and it can be seen more difficult for them to speak up because they are in the sports spotlight. With all the treatment options in place, an athlete can get the very best support available to them. By using a prevention tool that identifies and alerts for signs of mental health issues earlier, associations can have more control over helping their athletes in a pro-active way.


For more information about how we can help professional athletes, visit


www.thrive.uk.com or contact me at mike@thrive.uk.com.


Written by Mike Thomas, Head of Sports at Thrive Therapeutic Software Ltd.