When a jockey parts company with a mount, no longer is it a matter of the rider getting up and preparing for the next race.
A fall or lost rider in a sanctioned National Steeplechase Association race triggers an immediate evaluation by a trained physician, who looks at not only potential physical injury that might keep the rider from performing properly but also administers a cognitive test to protect against concussion.
The concussion testing and detailed medical emergency procedures are only two of the many protections mandated by the NSA Board of Directors, which regards the safety of horse and rider as its top priority.
The NSA board’s work is guided by the Steeplechase Safety Committee, instituted by the NSA board in 2012 and headed since its founding by R. Reynolds Cowles, D.V.M., the immediate past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. Through many initiatives, the committee looks at all aspects of the sport and recommends improvements to the Board of Directors.
The NSA has been a leader in Thoroughbred racing and all sports in protecting its participants—the jockeys in this case—from the short-term and long-term effects of concussions. With financial assistance from the National Steeplechase Foundation, the NSA launched baseline cognitive testing of its jockeys beginning in 2013.
The NSA effort drew from the experience of the British racing industry and has been a model for flat tracks and other racing organizations. Subsequent to the NSA’s initiative, other professional sports organizations have begun concussion-testing procedures as concerns over the long-term effects of head injuries have grown.
The concussion-prevention process begins with baseline testing of the jockeys. For the convenience of the riders, four locations were established for administering the tests: the National Steeplechase Museum in Camden, S.C.; the Iroquois Steeplechase in Nashville, Tenn.; the Virginia Gold Cup in The Plains; and the NSA headquarters in Fair Hill, Md.
While the baseline test is crucial for evaluating the effects of concussion, the sport lacked an adequate sideline test to be used immediately after a fall or lost rider. Again drawing on the experience of British racing, the NSA included three brief cognitive questions in its post-fall assessment form.
Any abnormal answers or other suspicion of a concussion on the part of the examining physician then triggers an immediate and more comprehensive concussion screening, which includes memory, balance, and vestibular function.
Before the jockey can ride again, both the physical and cognitive aspects of the evaluation must be passed. If the jockey requires follow-up care, the NSA office provides the rider with information on regional centers that specialize in concussion treatment.
The race meet physician must submit a form on each rider after a mishap. The medical-evaluation form is only one aspect of a comprehensive medical-emergency plan developed last year by a Safety Committee task force headed by Gregg Morris, a senior steward and medical professional.
In addition to supporting the baseline concussion testing, the National Steeplechase Foundation instituted in 2014 a helmet-replacement program under which a rider who sustains a fall in a race can obtain a new helmet free of charge.
Because the helmet may be compromised in a fall, the NSA recommends that its licensed jockeys have two helmets available at every race meet.
Through the Safety Committee, the NSA board is continually evaluating initiatives to protect both the riders and the horses. The Safety Committee regularly examines the National Fence and has recommended enhancements such as sight lines for the fences and firmer foam rolls on the takeoff sides of the fences. Also, the Safety Committee has recommended the use of running rails at some meets to guide horses through turns.