Revamped Counseling Program Helping Maryland Horsemen

The physical demands that horsemen face are well known to those familiar with the industry. Long hours, hard labor, and non-stop care for our equine athletes can not only affect a horsemen’s physical health and stability, but their mental well-being too. That is why MTHA in partnership with Maryland Jockey Club has placed a renewed interest in the counseling and mental health services offered to horsemen and backstretch workers, and the results have been remarkable.

Spearheading these efforts at Maryland tracks is Counseling Administrator Jessica Hammond. Jessica attended Towson University for her undergraduate studies and then the University of Baltimore for post grad work in clinical psychology. However, her lifelong work with horses and experience on the backside is what allows Jessica to excel at identifying the sometimes unique problems found only on a racetrack backstretch.

“When I saw the ad for this position, I knew [a career] in the psychology/racing intersection was a unique and amazing opportunity. It was a perfect fit for me,” said Jessica.

The first obstacle for Jessica in improving the services offered to horsemen was simple: Making horsemen aware that there was a program at all. While the MTHA has offered counseling services for years, upon talking with horsemen on the backside, Jessica realized that many were not aware of its existence. The programs offered were not very developed and without people coming in to take advantage of them, the services were not helping as many people as they could.

This turned around quickly following Jessica’s involvement beginning in July. Having started with only a few clients who were required to be in the program in order to get their license reinstated after a suspension, Jessica now manages the care of about 17 clients on a regular basis. This does not include the many horsemen who have taken advantage of her abilities on a less frequent basis. 

Some horsemen have more serious issues that Jessica has had to help with. Many workers on the backside are dealing with pre-existing issues like depression or anxiety and, while working with animals can be therapeutic, it is critical to have a someone available for those individuals. Personal and professional relationships can be another potential area of stress, especially in the horse racing community where it is very common to be working alongside family, friends and significant others. Often times we simply need a good listener and to get something off of our chest in order alleviate stress from certain situations and Jessica is here to listen and give advice.

Jessica also works hand in hand with the team of onsite Medstar physicians, also part of the new Horsemen’s Health System. If the Medstar physicians think that Jessica’s work would be beneficial to a patient they will refer them to her, and she will do the same for people that come to her but need medical attention in addition to counseling. Jessica will also help facilitate communication between patients in the hospital and the on-site Medstar physicians.

One of the most popular counseling services in the new MTHA health initiative is the Alcoholics Anonymous program. In order to get this program off the ground Jessica contacted an administrator from Maryland AA and asked if they would come to the track to conduct meetings. Since the spring, AA meetings have taken place every Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Laurel Rec Center, and according to the AA administrators, attendance has been good and the quality of discussion great. Anyone can attend.

The MTHA counseling program is always trying to encourage horsemen to take advantage of all the MTHA has to offer. There have been many new activities that center on games and sports which, although open to all, draw primarily male participants. The upcoming Ladies Spa Day, on Oct. 6, is an effort to encourage the women of the backside to be more involved, and Jessica is taking the reins. There will be massage and other spa services along with a chance to participate in Yoga activities which, if popular, could become a regular offering. The goal, aside from a fun, relaxing day, is to promote female participation and awareness, not just of backstretch activities, but services like counseling of which they may not be aware.

In the especially fast-paced world of horse racing, anxiety, stress and other mental issues can be hidden but debilitating stigmas. The MTHA Counseling Program, headed up by Jessica Hammond, is here to provide horsemen with a convenient, free resolution mechanism for these problems.

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