A little over a year ago, I had a bad fall in a jumper class at a horse show and suffered a concussion. I thought the distance was there, but my horse, evidently, did not, and I crashed head-first into the fence. When I was able to get up and walk out of the ring, I was somewhat disoriented and stunned. I asked my trainer the same question three times: “What happened?”
The medics at this horse show asked me if I was alright and if anything hurt. I told them I was fine, and despite my slightly bewildered state, they determined that I was just “shaken up” and said it was OK for me to get back on to ride in my other classes. However, my trainer and my parents weren’t convinced that I was fine and insisted that I go to the hospital to get my head checked out.
I was diagnosed with a concussion and was told I had to stop riding for a month. When I heard what the doctor said, my heart sank. I couldn’t just not ride for that long. I would miss the Maclay Regionals, which would prevent me from going to the ASPCA Maclay Final. I might not even be able to compete at the Medal Finals either. That year was my first time competing in the big eq classes, and I was thrilled that I had qualified. Now it seemed like all my hard work was for nothing. I was devastated.
The whole time I was in the emergency room, I kept telling myself that I shouldn’t have let my parents take me to the hospital. I was convinced it would have been better if I had just kept quiet and insisted I was fine. I also berated myself for having messed up that jump. If I’d just closed it up a little bit more, none of this would have happened, and I would still be able to ride.
But during my period of recovery, my perspective on my situation changed. I realized I could keep blaming myself for missing the distance or my parents for bringing me to the hospital, but in the end, I had to accept I had a head injury. People miss distances–it’s just a fact of the sport–but getting a concussion as a result is a different story. This was merely a situation of an expected occurrence having an unexpected result.
In the equestrian world, I feel there is a certain “culture” that encourages riders to immediately get back onto their horses after a fall, for fear of appearing weak or timid or simply from a desire to continue riding and competing. That describes the mentality I had before my injury. I believe this way of thinking stems from a good place (riders wanting to be resilient and rectify the error they made), but sometimes this outlook can compromise their own safety. I now realize that going to the hospital and getting an accurate diagnosis was the right thing to do.
If my parents and trainer had listened to me (and the medics!) when I believed I was fine, I might have risked making my injury worse. If I had fallen again and sustained another heard injury before recovering from my first concussion, for example, I could have had more severe and possibly permanent brain damage.
My injury prompted me to do some research about head trauma in the equestrian world; what I discovered shocked me. According to a study published in the April 2016 issue of the Journal of Neurosurgery, equestrian sports were the greatest contributors to sports-related traumatic brain injuries during 2002-2013 when researchers studied 4,788 adult sports-related TBIs incurred in the activities of equestrian, roller sports, skiing/snowboarding, aquatic sports and falls/interpersonal contact.
Of the 4,788 TBI incidents of participants 18 years and older studied, 45.2 percent were from equestrian accidents. That is almost half of adult sports-related head trauma-related injuries due to a single sport! I had absolutely no idea that riding appears to have the highest rate of traumatic brain injury per time engaged in the activity.
Although equestrians are at such high risk for head trauma, by and large I feel many are unaware or misinformed of the risks, symptoms, preventative methods and appropriate management of concussive injuries. I certainly was.
It became apparent to me that greater educational efforts are needed to instruct everyone involved in our sport—riders, trainers, show staff and parents—about making informed decisions regarding traumatic brain injuries. Specifically, baseline neurocognitive testing for riders is really important in assessing an individual’s brain function after a head injury, since it serves as a platform of comparison to reveal possible abnormalities or changes in cognitive performance. This helps determine the severity of an injury and when the injury has healed. This test is encouraged by U.S. Equestrian on a page of their website dedicated to concussion information, yet so many riders have not undergone a baseline cognitive exam and are unaware of its importance.
I hadn’t received this evaluation before my injury, but thankfully, I performed well on this test after my concussion, so there was no reason to believe my injury had altered my cognitive function. However, this result could have been dramatically different and the extent of my injury uncertain. I strongly encourage riders to consult their doctors or school staff to refer them to someone who can administer this short, but important, exam.
So in the end, I missed Regionals and couldn’t go to Maclay Finals. I actually was able to go to Medal Finals, and my horse and I put in a solid round that made my trainer was happy. But fortunately and most importantly, I fully recovered from my concussion without further complications.
I never thought this injury could possibly have a positive impact, but I learned a great deal from my accident, and I now have a more mindful appreciation for our wonderful sport. I want to help get the word around to as many riders as possible—in particular younger riders where concussions can have greater consequences—to learn about head trauma and receive the baseline neurocognitive test.
As a start, USEF has some really good resources for riders, trainers, and parents about concussions on their website that I highly recommend reading.
Aubrienne Krysiewicz-Bell, 17, of New York City won the 2014 Washington International Children’s Hunter Championship on Monopoly. In 2017 she rode her Early Winter to wins in the equitation division and in the junior hunters. Krysiewicz-Bell is a junior at the Marymount School of New York.