Race car drivers and professional football players work in hazardous occupations, but I would argue that jockeys are more at risk of catastrophic injury or even death.  Riding a Thoroughbred in a full field of horses takes nerve, knowing that misbehavior by one horse, or clipping heels, or a breakdown can have a chain reaction with the potential to result in terrible consequences.

The Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund website informs that it “provides financial assistance to some 60 former jockeys who have suffered catastrophic on-track injuries.  Since its founding in 2006, the fund has disbursed over $7 million to permanently disabled jockeys, most of whom have sustained paralysis or brain injuries.”

PDJF states:  “Many of the jockeys we serve were injured while in their 20s and 30s and face decades of living with a disability.  They have lost their income and the opportunity to build a financial cushion sufficient to support them and their families.”

Fortunately, help is coming to injured jockeys from science-fiction-like advances in biorobotics, a branch of science that marries medicine and engineering and can be used to assist people with such neurological maladies as spinal-cord injuries and strokes.

According to the Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMB), “biorobotics encompasses a diverse array of disciplines with a myriad of applications.”  One application with great promise for injured jockeys is rehabilitation engineering.  EMB explains:

“Rehabilitation engineers create methods and technologies to help patients regain cognitive and/or motor function.  Some of these patients might have cerebral palsy or Parkinson’s disease, have suffered a stroke or head trauma or be recovering from a spine injury.  Since much of the work in this area is focused on neurological conditions and physical function, solutions rely heavily on neural, biomedical, and biorobotic engineers.”

To illustrate, the New York Times reported:

“Engineers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab have developed a next-generation prosthetic: a robotic arm that has 26 joints, can curl up to 45 pounds and is controlled with a person’s mind just like a regular arm.

Researchers think the arm could help people like Les Baugh, who lost both arms at the shoulder after an electrical accident as a teenager.  Now 59, Mr. Baugh recently underwent surgery at Johns Hopkins to remap the remaining nerves from his missing arms, allowing brain signals to be sent to the prosthetic.

Mr. Baugh’s custom socket can pick up brain signals to control the arms, known as Modular Prosthetic Limbs, or M.P.L., just by thinking about the movements.”

Everything possible needs to be done to make race riding safer, from installing track surfaces that have fewer breakdowns to preventing breakdown-prone horses from running.  Even with these precautions, some injury-causing accidents are inevitable.  Biorobotics will increasingly be able to help physically disabled jockeys to function and live fuller lives.  The question will be whether the horse-racing industry will come up with the dollars needed.

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