Welcome to the Redtorch She Moves The Game Spotlight Series, where we shine the light on the incredible women working in sport.

This month we hear from Naomi Mellor. As she explains in our latest interview, her route into the world of sport was most unusual!

It would be interesting to hear a bit more about your backstory, your background as a vet and how that saw you enter the world of sport.

Like a lot of vets, I wanted to be a vet from a very early age. The family myth is that I held a lamb when I was about four and said, ‘I want to be a vet!’ Years later, I got down the road with a lot of support and a great deal of hard work. Lots of people were really helpful to me, especially in my teenage years as getting into vet school was not that easy.

I went to vet school in Edinburgh which was a great experience. My first job was for a charity and then I worked in Yorkshire for a while. I should say I have no background in horses and neither of my parents are involved with horses or racing. I had ridden a bit when I was little but never owned a pony or anything, so I think it was probably a bit random.

I’m from Cheshire, which is a big dairy area, so I was really into cows when I was at vet school but somehow made my way into horses. This came about through one of the (with hindsight!) more interesting decisions in my life which was to accept a job offer in Australia over the phone – despite not knowing anyone there. So I moved out to work in horse racing there and that’s how I initially got into the sector.

Had you even been to Australia before?

No and I went on my own. It’s the sort of thing you do when you’re 24, not when you’re 40! It was an interesting manoeuvre for my family, but it was good. It was a tough job, I learned a lot, and it was a demanding role in lots of ways. But I got lots of experience which was a good leg up when I was starting out especially when I didn’t know anything or anybody involved in horses over here in the UK either.

That’s amazing. Especially given you had no background in horses before becoming a vet. I’m horsey myself and you find these things often run in families.

No matter what sector of equestrian you’re in – eventing/show jumping/dressage/horse racing (or anything else for that matter) – there’s a lot of ‘they’re such-and-such a person’s child’ and ‘that’s their dad’ or ‘they’ve been riding since before they could walk.’ I think that creates a perceived barrier to entry and can be an actual barrier to entry for many people. Opening up all aspects of the equestrian industry to those who haven’t had access before or who might have been made to feel they didn’t have a chance to be a part of things is extremely important for me. I’m lucky that my parents are very supportive, and although not at all horsey they were quite happy to go along with my bananas dreams so I’m fortunate in that sense. But for me, widening the scope and breadth of horseracing and horses in general has always been key.

I absolutely hear that. I’ve seen both sides of it and like you say there’s this air of exclusivity that people see around horses whereas anyone can decide one day ‘I’m going to go down to a riding school and ride a horse.’

Even if you go to a riding school you pay for riding lessons so that’s a potential financial barrier. But when you dig into it, in racing you don’t have to own a horse to go down to a racing yard. If you’re a teenager, or any age actually, it’s quite equitable in a surprising fashion.

I’ve done a lot of stud work and I think the same about working with foals or working on stud yards. If people are interested in animals, particularly in the competitive sporting side, then horse racing provides quite a lot of opportunity. Perhaps people are put off by the perception of it being a rich person’s game. Yes, there’s no doubt that to own racehorses you have to be rich, but I think to get into working in the industry is a little bit different.

I also used to work in horse racing, in marketing, and it’s definitely seen as a male-dominated industry. How have you found working within the industry and have you found that to be true?

Yes, in some ways. I’ve hung out with many more men than women, but I’ve found it to be quite good fun. As with other sports, there is cross interest so a lot of people in racing play golf and are keen on rugby and football, for example. Basically, if you’re interested in sport and competition, in general I haven’t found that it’s much of a problem.

Have I encountered some shockingly sexist attitudes? Yes. I’ve put up with some appalling comments on occasion, but a long time ago and not in this country. I qualified 17 years ago and I do believe things have moved along and attitudes have changed, particularly in the last five years. Although there is still a predominance of men towards the upper levels of the sport (as in many working environments), the CEO of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has been Julie Harrington for the past four years – though she has just announced she is to step down at the end of 2024. The BHA also had a chair, Annamarie Phelps, a former Olympic rower, who is now chair of the British Olympic Association. So there are women around at the highest level and that’s a positive but there’s certainly more to do.

I’ve been fortunate that I’ve worked with a lot of brilliant men who have not just been supportive but fun and a good laugh, and that has been good for me.

It makes such a big difference if you get on with the people you’re working with! Talking of teamwork, we’d love to hear more about Racing Home and the important collaborations you’ve built with other sports to help women navigate the world of sport.

The two sports with whom we’re teaming up are sailing and motorsport.

This has come about through a collaboration between Women in Racing, The Magenta Project, a worldwide organisation that ensures sailing is a more equitable and inclusive sport for all, and More Than Equal, an organisation founded by ex-Formula 1 driver, David Coulthard, which aims to find the first female F1 champion.

The reason these sports are coming together with horse racing is because they are three of the major sports in which women compete alongside men at the top level. While sailing has a number of gender-differentiated events in the Olympics for example, there are plenty of other events where women and men compete in the same teams or in the same boats and in the same races. Similarly, although no women are currently competing in Formula 1, or have done since 1976, they are allowed to, so theoretically they can be there, should be there, and eventually will be there. In horse racing there are already women jockeys alongside men at the highest level. This is why these three sports will be part of our collaboration – particularly with research – in the first instance.

The first port of call prior to the project kicking off was when Women In Racing partnered with Oxford Brookes University to study women in the horse racing industry. Subsequently, we have again partnered with Oxford Brookes on research about working mothers in horse racing, retentional recruitment in the industry and retention of working parents in the workforce. Having looked at these issues in the first instance, we are now looking at other areas of interest, particularly around the menopause and its impact on women, the workforce and flexible working.

One of the things we’re talking about with motor sport and sailing is gender design of equipment and tech/clothing. In horse racing, for example, we commonly hear from women in the professional part of the sector about issues like the fit of body protectors, safety harnesses in sailing, and cars/chassis in motor sport. They are not made for women and don’t work for many of them. God forbid you happen to be pregnant but even if you’re not there are compromises on safety, comfort and performance. These result from people either having to modify existing products or trying to create something new.

You mentioned body protectors. Generally I don’t enjoy wearing one if I’m riding cross country but if there was a design tailored specifically for women that would make so much sense.

100%. Look at a high-profile person like Zara Phillips, who was riding until she was five or six months pregnant as far as I remember – trying to get any kind of body protector over a bump at three, four or five months is virtually impossible.

Something significant we reported in the earlier pieces of research was about people in horse racing not wanting to tell their employer they were pregnant because they were worried, they would be stopped from riding out: understandable from a safety perspective but in some cases, there was no element of choice in the decision. Therefore, women didn’t tell their employers early in their pregnancy, they just carried on riding. If you are working in racing you obviously have to wear a body protector to ride out. Finding something that is usable is difficult.

Absolutely. It’s something a great many people don’t think about because there have been so few women racing in the past. Obviously in recent years we’ve had quite a lot of very good women jockeys but looking a bit further back it just wouldn’t have been a subject that cropped up.

Another example for women who work in horse racing is that until recently you might have had to have walk through a male changing room to get to a woman’s toilet. There have been modifications to weighing rooms in the last couple of years to deal with the issue, which is very welcome.

One point raised in sailing is if you’re on a racing boat, and the race lasts several days, some of them weeks or months, things like provision of toilet facilities and women being on their period need to be considered.  People often feel there’s a degree of shame around the discussion.

Something that’s been specifically discussed in horse racing is that everybody wears white breaches which may prove a concern during menstruation. The question is, why does everybody wear white breeches for every race? The answer is, because it’s always been the case. So there’s really no good reason why you couldn’t wear black breeches with your colours.

It’s about asking the questions and being part of the movement of ‘this could be thought about differently.’

I guess it’s about starting conversations. Like you say, there’s something of a taboo about certain topics, periods for example, that people feel uncomfortable talking about. But the more we do talk about it, the less uncomfortable people will feel.

I couldn’t agree more. The more conversations we have around topics that are considered taboo, the better. It’s one of the reasons I first got involved with the Racing Home project. I produce and host the podcast associated with the project and one of the topics we have discussed was the menopause and its impact on women at work; an enormous impact from a financial perspective but still very difficult to discuss within a working environment. From a financial and economic perspective for businesses, too, the impact is huge, so it makes sense to be having conversations as to how they can help people.

You mentioned that part of the project was some research looking into maternity within horse racing and other sports. That’s so interesting. It’s something a lot of people don’t think about when it comes to female athletes, people forget that they’re women and they’re mums.

Yes, an interesting thing that came out of the research was around the prevailing attitude – as a professional jockey, a professional athlete or someone who just has riding work as part of their job – that once you’ve had a baby it’s very difficult to come back. However, there is an example of one woman jockey, Kim Tinkler, who succesfully returned to horse racing after having children and won several races.

Unlike in sports such as tennis or athletics, there haven’t been many high-profile horse racing athletes who have been able to do that – it might also be because we haven’t had women around at the very top – like Hollie Doyle or Rachel Blackwell – for that long.

What I would say is that three-day eventing is a good example of plenty of women who’ve ridden at the highest level, had kids and returned to the sport so it can be done.

Nevertheless, the views we found in the research – again, a few years ago and things have moved on – was that if you got pregnant that would basically be it for a professional athlete.

If you look around, an England Rugby player, Abbie Ward, had a baby and returned very quickly to train with Bristol. I think the difference – and one of the reasons that horse racing has become involved with motorsport and sailing – is that, unlike say football, rugby, cricket, these sports do not always have a separate women’s game and men’s game. Women would be individually supported as mothers within the women’s game of any of those sports.

Whereas we’re trying to support women to allow them to have the time off required to be a mum, rehabilitate from childbirth, and return to athleticism all while aiming for change in other areas within a mixed-gender environment at the same time.

You’re clearly very passionate about helping/boosting women in sport. Can you tell us a little about some of the women’s networks you’ve been a part of over the years and what you’ve taken from them? I know we’re both members of the Women’s Sport Collective.

Women In Racing was established quite a while ago with the express aim of helping women to progress in their horse racing careers through an established mentoring programme that has been well supported across the industry from top to bottom.

It has been a genuine space where I have made friends and contacts within the industry and, particularly when I knew nobody, it was a good place to see friendly faces who you would then bump into on racecourses and elsewhere. Some of them work in the sport – in lots of different sectors, doing lots of different things – some of them own horses, and some have jobs completely outside of horse racing. You mentioned you worked in marketing in racing. Suddenly as a vet you mix with people who work in sales, marketing, PR, corporate affairs and policy, with horses in yards, in broadcast and journalism. That’s a wide variety of people in one organisation who, even if you need help and they’re not the right person they can probably point you in the direction of somebody who would be.

You mentioned the Women’s Sport Collective, which more recently has been a place of real encouragement for me as well as somewhere to get to know people across lots of different sports.

You find wonderful women who support our environment and have enthusiastic attitudes to helping others.

I feel like all women working in sport have got something in common that brings us together.

Yes, that’s so true. Personally, I’m not a massive football fan, but if I needed to connect with somebody in football there’s a ton of people who could help me.

As if you haven’t already done enough to help elevate the position of women, you also founded the International Women’s Podcast Awards. Can you tell us how that came about?

Back in 2017 I was working quite merrily as a vet and had to relocate with my husband’s job to an area of the country where I didn’t know anybody. Initially I couldn’t find a job as a vet and ended up working part-time for the British Horseracing Authority alongside other bits and pieces and some work in another practice, so I was kind of juggling multiple small jobs for a while. I decided it’d be nice to have some new skills and do something difficult – so I learned how to create a podcast!

Then I began a show of my own and off the back of that, once I had a bit more experience, I was asked to produce for some clients, initially in the veterinary sector and then subsequently in horse racing. During the pandemic, I realised that having worked across women’s networks in veterinary and horse racing and sport, there was nothing similar on the podcast stage, so I decided to create a collective for women podcasters which is still going. We started the International Women’s Podcast Awards at the same time: now in its fourth year and with entries from 34 different countries.

It helps you understand what’s going on around the world. The fantastic high-quality storytelling and the growth of the podcast (together with radio) in other countries is really uplifting. Last year we set up a category to accept entries in languages other than English and now accept podcasts in any language.

As a side point, we’ve seen some great podcast entries about women’s sport this year!

Amazing! I’ll have to check them out. Do you have a role model/someone who has helped you to get to where you are today?

Lots of people have helped me in various ways. Do I have a role model? In my veterinary career, probably not one person or even a small number of people. I’ve had a ton of people who have helped me over the years through their teaching, their support and their guidance. Similarly on the horse racing side of my career.

The person who helped me on the podcasting and sports side was the adventurer Sarah Williams who hosts the Tough Girl podcast. She’s a great person and helped me getting through an ultra-marathon and through starting the podcast. So she shaped how I ended up running the awards and my podcast business alongside my work in horse racing and the veterinary sector.

I need to ask you more about this ultra-marathon – what made you think you wanted to do it?

The short answer is, I don’t really know. I’d never run a marathon before but had always run when I was younger. I decided to try and do something that wasn’t academic but would be a tough challenge for me. I wanted it to be near me in the UK and not somewhere that required long international travel or a long time away. I’d been keeping an eye on a race along the coastline in Dorset where some of my family have lived, and decided to enter the Jurassic Coast Challenge. The Jurassic coast there is beautiful but quite challenging from a running perspective as are nearly all of the Southwest coastal paths.

I believe we can all do hard things, but I hadn’t had the guts to do it before. It was hard but it was manageable.
I was clueless about training and nutrition: if I was to approach it again now I would do it very very differently. But it was alright, I got through it.

I think it’s easy to get into a rut, hard to get out of one in a lot of things we do in life. That was an opportunity for me to explore a new area we’d just moved to. Getting out maps, learning the trails and taking the dog with me provided a good excuse to learn new ways of doing things.

I love the thought of saying, ‘right I want a challenge. What am I going to take on?’

I think it’s just learning something new or doing something different. A friend of mine has just learned pottery, for example, and is now making exquisite things. To me that seems like a massive challenge.

Yeah I think I might do a different challenge, maybe not an ultra-marathon! But I like the idea. My last question… What advice would you give to girls or women who want to kickstart or progress their career in the sports industry?

I wish people had said to me earlier ‘don’t be afraid to ask other people for help.’ I’m amazed by how willing people are to help others, particularly if you ask for introductions to people who might be useful to you. It’s an easy thing for somebody who is more senior or more experienced than you to do.

I think networking is often regarded as something of a dirty word because it is perceived as some kind of awkward speed dating. But I love it! I realise it can be daunting and difficult when you first start it because it was for me too. Once you get into the habit of it, you know you can ask people for introductions or connections or any other sort of help. I had an email this morning asking, ‘do you know anyone that might have a look at my CV for me?’ It’s about making younger women aware that you’re open to helping them. It’s really important for young women to talk, and men as well, to people with more experience who’ve got where they want to be. Just say, ‘are you open to a coffee or a quick chat?’

My one tip is to have a specific ‘ask’. Just saying ‘can I meet you for lunch?’ is rather open-ended. Time is precious so it might be better to say something like, ‘can you introduce me on email to Rozie Slack please?’

I don’t know if this is true, but I feel like it’s something that maybe young women struggle with more than young men. Putting yourself out there a little bit more and having the confidence to ask questions.

I think it is difficult. I absolutely hate the term personal brand, but the reality is that many people judge (and are judged) quite quickly on meeting someone. It’s important to think about what it is you stand for, what you are about and have a clear idea of what your thing is. Perhaps in the podcast world, somewhat inadvertently, people will say ‘that’s Naomi, she does lots of stuff about women.’ And perhaps that wasn’t quite what I expected when I first did a podcast.

Understanding how you want to treat people and how you want to be treated is important too. I was brought up to be nice to other people because you never know when you’re going to need them to be nice to you. That stands for a lot. One of the phrases I keep in my mind all the time is ‘people work with people they like.’

We touched on it earlier, how much easier it is to work with people you get on with.

New opportunities might come your way if you are fair, trustworthy and hard-working and if you have good positive energy. That’s not to say you must plaster on a smile and be positive all the time. Nobody can be, it’s impossible. But it’s about making a conscious choice about the kind of person you decide to be at work. It might sound easy, but it’s not!

It’s just finding where your groove is. It does take time and you can’t force it or fake it. Just allow your personality shine through and – this word is so overused but – being as authentic as you can.

We hope you enjoyed reading about Naomi’s amazing career and the fantastic work of Racing Home.

You can find out more about Naomi via her LinkedIn.

Keep an eye out on our website and LinkedIn as we continue to highlight extraordinary women in sport through She Moves The Game.