Back From The Brink: Hip Replacement Gives NCEA Rider A New Future

May 20, 2022 - 9:22 PM

When Rhian Murphy was recruited to the Texas A&M equestrian team nearly six years ago, she looked at the opportunity as the perfect next step after a junior career that had included appearances at top shows up and down the East Coast. Even though the school’s campus in College Station, Texas, was nearly 2,000 miles from her home in Charlotte, Vermont, the distance was nothing compared to the personal journey she had taken to get there: Thanks to medical issues as a teen, her equestrian career had nearly ended before it began.

Murphy was just 13 years old and an aspiring hunt seat equitation rider when she began experiencing persistent pain in her left hip. She had just been through a growth spurt, shooting up to 5’8”, that caused her to struggle with her balance on the pony she rode. She admits that she had been “falling off a bit more than usual,” and assumed the pain might be related to that. But being young and a little stubborn, she ignored the pain and continued with her usual activities, including riding. When the situation still hadn’t improved a month later, her doctor scheduled an X-ray of the joint. The day before her appointment, Murphy stumbled while getting out of her family’s car and was suddenly in agony.

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Rhian Murphy with her father, John Murphy, at a horse show in the years before her hip problems began. Photo Courtesy Of Rhian Murphy

“We were in our garage and I just tripped getting out, and my hip just fell apart,” remembers Murphy, 24. “Everyone has told me that I have to come up with a better story, it’s really embarrassing!”

At the hospital, doctors found that the growth plate that was supposed to be on the top of Murphy’s left hip had slipped more than halfway down.

“They described it as ice cream falling off the cone,” Murphy says. “It was one of the worst of that type of break they’d seen in their hospital.”

At the time, the preferred treatment for this specific injury was to surgically pin the growth plate in place at whatever location it had slipped to. But due to the severity of displacement in Murphy’s hip, the procedure would come at a serious long-term cost.

“They said that I would always walk with a limp, that I would never be able to run, and I would never be able to ride a horse again,” Murphy says. “I couldn’t quite fathom it at the time.”

Prior to her injury, Murphy was already serious about her riding, training with Annie Dotoli and Aster Pieters and competing extensively on the Vermont circuit. Her future plans included shows throughout the Northeast and even heading to the winter circuit in Ocala, Florida. The idea of never riding again was simply inconceivable to the young teenager.

“I’m lucky I had my parents there, because they knew that wasn’t an option either,” Murphy says. “I just looked at my parents and said, ‘No, we have to figure something else out.’ Luckily, they did.”

Murphy’s parents found a surgeon who was willing to move the growth plate back into its original position, pinning it in place and increasing the chances of a more normal range of motion in the joint. Post-surgery, Murphy dedicated herself to physical rehabilitation. But nearly a year later, she still was experiencing significant pain and mobility limitations that affected her riding.

“The reason they don’t normally do this surgery is because of necrosis, which is [due to] a loss of blood supply to the hip,” Murphy says. “That is what ended up happening. The bone got really misshapen because it wasn’t getting the nutrients it needed. It got really rough and bumpy.”

Over the next several years, Murphy underwent at least three more surgeries to repair the damage. For much of her junior career, reaching performance goals became a balancing act between training in her sport and managing her pain.

“For the longest time, I’d known what my goal was and where I wanted to go and that I always wanted to keep being involved with horses,” she says. “I did anything I could to stay in the sport.

“It was a lot of planning—if I needed another surgery, I would figure out when the horse shows were, how long the recovery and rehab was supposed to take, and sometimes tried to push it back until the finals were over,” she adds. “It was like, ‘Let’s look at the schedule and compare it to my pain level and see what we can figure out.’”

When her trainers relocated from Vermont to Rhode Island, Murphy began training with the team at Beacon Hill Show Stable in New Jersey for her last few junior years. This gave her the opportunity to compete not only throughout the Northeast but also at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida.

“I kept progressing in my riding and setting higher goals,” Murphy says. “I’d always wanted to qualify for all four Big Eq finals and make the second round, which I was able to do at the Maclay Finals my last year.

“I only had one horse, my equitation horse, but I really loved the jumpers, so I tried to get as many catch rides as I could in that, too,” she continues. “I was able to do the lows and the mediums at WEF and Kentucky at different times. My hip was good for a while, and I was able to achieve everything I wanted to as a junior.”

As Murphy began thinking about college, she became interested in the competitiveness and rigor of teams in the National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA). Being recruited by Texas A&M to join their equestrian team seemed like a dream come true.

“My parents had spent so much money to help support my dreams as a junior that getting a scholarship for college seemed like a small but good way I could pay them back for that,” she says.

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After a meet during her freshman year at Texas A&M, Murphy got a celebratory lift from teammates Mali Selman, left, and Caroline Dance. Texas A&M Photo

As an undergraduate, Murphy studied psychology and wholly embraced her membership on a varsity equestrian team. But by her sophomore year, the physical demands required of a student-athlete—daily mounted practices as well as a rigorous unmounted gym sessions—put increasing stress on her hip, and the persistent pain returned. By the end of her fall semester, she approached the team’s athletic trainer, David Weir, with her concerns.

“I told him, ‘I am taking 20 Advil a day and it’s not doing anything for the pain,” she recalls. “I think we have to figure something else out.”

Weir worked on Murphy’s hip daily, utilizing an array of therapies including dry needling and tissue massage, which mitigated her pain to some extent. But when she went in for a consultation with her hip specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital during the winter break, he told her that the joint had simply worn out. If Murphy wanted to continue to compete at the level she was at, the only option was a total hip replacement.

Murphy was determined to finish the academic year with her team, and as she had done before, tried to push through the pain. But it became clear that ultimately, she would have no other choice than to undergo the surgery.

“I went from practicing four or five days a week, on a horse for an hour and riding extras every day, to sitting on the horse for five minutes at a time,” she says. “Luckily in collegiate equestrian, that’s all you’re needing to do—you get on your horse, you get a four minute warm up, you compete.

“At practice, I would get on the horse, do the course, ride the flat pattern, and then I had to be done,” Murphy continues. “I couldn’t help in the barn a lot because I couldn’t be on my feet that long, honestly.”

In May 2019, Murphy underwent a total replacement of her left hip at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Unlike with her previous surgeries, she didn’t have a clear sense of how long her recovery would take. Her coaches, her athletic trainer and even several surgeons she spoke with at Texas A&M expected she would need to sit out the fall 2019 semester at a minimum, if not the whole year.

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Post-surgery, Murphy was able to jump again and participate in meets like this home meet her senior year, riding Converse. Texas A&M Photo

“But I was off my crutches in about one month, and I was back in the saddle 10 weeks later,” Murphy says. “Honestly, recovery and rehab after the hip replacement was probably the easiest part of this whole process, just because I wasn’t in so much pain anymore.”

Throughout the whole experience, Murphy’s teammates were a source of constant support.

“I’m so thankful to have them because they were always there, anything I needed,” she says. “With helping get horses ready or with taking care of them after, and even sending little supportive messages throughout the week. I don’t know if they know what that meant to me—just always knowing they were in my corner.”

Murphy’s coach, Abby O’Mara, as well as Weir, also helped Murphy keep her resolve.

“Abby was great and always reassuring me that she believed in me, and that she knew I could do it,” Murphy says. “And I would not have been able to get through it all without our athletic trainer David Weir. It did not matter if it was 7 in the morning or 10 p.m. after we’d just gotten to a hotel after a meet, he was ready to help in any capacity I needed.”

When Murphy returned to campus for the fall 2019 semester, new hip in place, she rediscovered a sense of true joy in her riding.

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Texas A&M teammates, from left, Devon Thomas, Maggie Nealon, Rhian Murphy, Nicole Leonard and teams director of operations Haley Webster at 2022 NCEA National Championship. Texas A&M Photo

“I think I just fell back in love with this sport, and it was fun again,” she says. “I remembered, ‘This is why I got into this in the first place.’ I have a lot of passion for it, and it makes my day better sitting on a horse. Before, it wasn’t like I didn’t have that love and passion ,but I had to really mentally prepare for the pain that was about to happen.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college campuses across the country in March 2020, it also canceled the NCEA post-season. Later, the organization granted its affected riders an extra year of eligibility, and Murphy took full advantage of the opportunity. In April 2022, she competed one final time for Texas A&M at the NCEA National Championships, and this month, she will graduate with her master’s degree in industrial organizational psychology.

Leaving the team that has been such an integral part of her recovery is, perhaps, one of the most bittersweet aspects of her impending graduation.

“The team has taught me so much about what it means to be a good teammate, how to be a good leader and help people come together in that way,” Murphy says. “It’s given me so much—my best friends, and it has helped shape me into the person I am today. It has given me everything.”

After dedicating years of her life to equitation, Murphy is not completely sure what her next equestrian pursuit will be, but she is relieved to know that at least for now, her hip won’t be part of the equation.

“My surgeon told me that this hip should last for 15 to 20 years,” Murphy says. “I’ll need another one eventually but not for a while. I’ll always have horses in my life, and a way to get back to them.”


Do you know a horse or rider who returned to the competition ring after what should have been a life-threatening or career-ending injury or illness? Email Kimberly at kloushin@coth.com with their story.


 

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