The United Kingdom has been a hugely important center for Thoroughbred racehorse breeding. Most modern Thoroughbred racehorses can trace a line back to three foundation sires that were imported to Britain in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and the General Stud Book still records details of every horse in the breed.
One of the most popular types of racing in the United Kingdom is the National Hunt, also known as steeplechase racing. Modern usage of the term steeplechase differs between countries, but in the United Kingdom, it refers to distance horse races where competitors are required to jump over obstacles, like fences and ditches. Race distances in a steeplechase vary from 2 – 4 ½ miles, with fences that are at least 4 ½ feet high.
The most famous steeplechase in the world is the Grand National, run annually at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool (since its inception in 1836). Collectively, Great Britain and Ireland account for over 50% of all steeplechase races worldwide.
In the early days of horse racing, owners tended to ride their own horses in races. This practice died out as racing became more organized and the owners hired jockeys to ride their horses instead. The colors, or silks, worn by jockeys in races are the registered colors of the owner or trainer who employs them. The practice of riders wearing colors stems from medieval times when jousts were held between knights.
Women were banned from racing under Jockey Club rules until 1972, when a series of a dozen races were approved for female jockeys. The first decade of the 21st century saw the profile of women jockeys rise considerably.
Steeplechase jockeys are a varied group. Most are professional riders, but some amateur jockeys remain in the steeplechase sport. Many of the leading jockeys today are from Ireland or England. Steeplechase jockeys are usually taller and heavier than most flat race jockeys. Jockeys are required to wear certified helmets that meet stringent crash-protection standards, and they carry padded whips to protect the well-being of the steeplechase horses.