From The Magazine: Horseman's Forum: This Is My Brain On Eventing

Feb 11, 2019 - 10:45 PM

I’ve been riding and falling off horses since a decade before the Green Bay Packers won the very first Super Bowl. Through it all, I pretty much observed the jockey’s Golden Rule: Try not to have two concussions in the same week. I reasoned that any knockout for less than 30 seconds didn’t count. That was more like fainting.

I learned in a fall at the Carolina Horse Park (North Carolina) in 2004 that you don’t have to black out to have a concussion. When I was cooling out the horse, a U.S. Eventing Association Safety Coordinator gave me her card—plus a talking-to. Apparently, your brain is like a cup of coffee in the console cup holder without a lid. Drive too fast over a bumpy road, and you’ll lose a few drops, even if you don’t lose the whole cup.

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“I could only ‘remember’ three times I had lost complete consciousness when falling from a horse, though I’d fallen countless other times without being knocked out,” says Julia Wendell of her decision to donate her brain to CTE research. GRC Photography Photo

After the suicide of former National Football League player Junior Seau in 2012, concerns were raised that suicide in former NFL players may be linked to football-related concussions. Such injuries can cause chronic migraines, as well as the more ominous CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy)—brain degeneration from repeated head trauma. Unfortunately, the condition can only be confirmed during an autopsy of the brain.

But these were male athletes in high contact situations. Surely women were immune to the problem, and I’d already decided to retire from competing at the upper levels. I celebrated “retirement” with a knockout, a broken hip and femur, a broken fibula in another fall, and some weird procedure that involved removing my shoulder and putting it back on me inside-out, a “reverse replacement.”

My husband suggested I might consider donating my brain to science after I die. I was repelled by the idea and slightly angry at him. What exactly was he implying? I’m not sure why I was so belligerent. I had, after all, repeatedly checked the box on my driver’s license applications to designate myself an organ donor. After I was finished with my heart, I was happy to give someone else a shot. How was donating my brain much different?

There is something profoundly personal and private and unique about a person’s gray matter, which is where our emotions live. I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone to have access to mine. I thought about it. Thought some more. Went to the source.

“Why me?” I asked my husband, pouring his first vodka tonic of the evening.

“Well, think of all the falls and concussions. Surely your brain has lots of stories to tell.”

I could only “remember” three times I had lost complete consciousness when falling from a horse, though I’d fallen countless other times without being knocked out. That didn’t seem like so many in the scheme of things. But my head had certainly gotten knocked around a lot from the other falls, even if I hadn’t gone dark.

I nearly scared my then-8-year-old daughter off horses altogether 25 years ago. We were hacking, me on my 18- hand Irish Sport Horse, and Caitlin on her 14-hand pony, through Green Spring hunt country, a few miles beyond our Maryland farm. Early morning, the dew was still on the grass. We were bombing through a woods path that ended with a jumpable coop into a large hilly field. The next thing I knew, Caitlin was standing over me, crying.

“Mom, are you all right? Please wake up.” My horse had slipped and gone down, and I went with him.

“Where am I?” was the only thing I could muster upon waking. It’s a little like coming into a theater in the middle of a movie and having to figure out the plot, not knowing the back story. In a matter of minutes, my life slowly filtered back to me. With no other injuries, I got up, and we trudged to a neighbor’s house for help, leading our horses, while I shook the stars out of my head.

Another time, I was at an upstate New York horse trial in cross-country warm- up. Similar scenario, except this time, my horse slipped coming around the turn to a warm-up oxer. Down I went. I woke to an Adonis hovering over me. “Julia, are you all right?” Will Coleman’s voice echoed through the long tunnel of half-consciousness. Dreamy. Maybe an old cowgirl should lose consciousness more often.

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I was in Aiken, South Carolina, for my third trip down no-memory lane, jumping my new fancy Australian horse. The horse missed his distance to the jump. Someone leaned over me, instructing the small crowd that had gathered to fall back and give me air. The medics arrived to transport me and my broken collarbone—it pronged upward like a coat hook—to the Augusta Medical Center in Georgia.

“Who’s the president?” the show medics asked me, while checking my neurology.

I was stumped. Shook out some bedhead. “George Bush?” I answered tentatively.

“Obama,” the medic corrected me. “But this is South Carolina. George Bush is fine with us. You’ll be all right.”

I was told I had been out for a good 10 minutes.

As far as I know, I’ve had no neurological repercussions from these traumatic brain events—though my right shoulder remains separated, and the rest of my body is a blasting zone from all the other falls I’ve taken in which I did not lose consciousness. Lots of rods and pins tell those stories.

I googled “donating brains to science” and came up with all kinds of articles and possibilities and an easy link to the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center. Apparently, all I had to do was to fill out a form to donate my brain to science and talk to my family and to whomever would be responsible for fulfilling my wishes in the event of my death. I wouldn’t even have to make a phone call.

The process hardly seemed gruesome and might be a good thing to do, I rationalized, kind of like donating a few hours to your favorite local charity. But I was still uncertain that anyone would want my brain. I mean, aren’t they looking for football players, who get smashed in the head on a daily basis, not equestrians who keep riding and competing long after most others have quit? Three times didn’t seem like so many. Did it? And what else would they find out in the process I wouldn’t want my descendants to know?

Riding is like breathing to me. Risky? Sure, it’s risky. Plenty of people in my sport have gotten hurt badly—a few irreparably, even fatally—from bad falls. But risk isn’t the theme of this article. It’s what others might learn from turning my dead self inside-out to get the skivvy on an event freak—a woman as obsessed with horses as she has been with jumping to the other side. And surely they could use another woman’s brain or two in the CTE tank at Harvard.

So here it is, all three lumpy pounds of it. Chisel away.


Julia Wendell is the author of several poetry books, as well as a memoir, “Finding My Distance” (Galileo Books, 2009). Her new memoir, “Come To The X,” will be published by Galileo Books in 2019. She is an event rider and currently lives in Aiken, South Carolina.


IN THE FORUM, horsemen are invited to express their views and offer constructive criticism on any topic relevant to working with and enjoying horses. The opinions expressed by the writers are entirely their own and not necessarily those of The Chronicle of the Horse.


This article appeared in the February 11 & 18, 2019, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. 

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