A series of concussions had showjumper Carissa McCall struggling to see, balance and judge distance. She talks to LockerRoom’s Ashley Stanley about getting back in the saddle. 

Three years ago Carissa McCall fell off her show jumping horse five times in six weeks.

The now 41-year-old originally put down the successive accidents to her inexperience competing at New Zealand’s highest level. She had only started taking the sport seriously in her mid-20s after hopping on a horse as a teenager.

But after the initial fall, the Taupaki jumper slowly started experiencing issues with her vision, balance and comprehension.

Moves on the course McCall would normally do with ease were ending with her tumbling off her horse Esteban MVNZ – a New Zealand warmblood holsteiner she trained up to World Cup level, on multiple occasions over a short period of time.

McCall says she had trouble finishing her bowing line routines – an exercise where a rider has to do one jump, turn left or right and jump another fence within a related distance.

“The same thing kept happening, I would be too far away from the jump. I thought that I was at the right spot and my horse would stop, then I’d fall off again,” says McCall, who is only now getting back up on the saddle after an arduous three-year recovery journey.

At the time, her support crew thought Esteban MVNZ was being careful and McCall was getting used to the new level of competition in the Country TV World Cup New Zealand series.

“We didn’t think too much of it but we were still trying to figure out what it could be when it started to happen more often,” says McCall. She has since been part of a concussion research project by AUT University.

Concussion was not considered a possible cause by McCall and her husband as she did not hit her head in the first fall. By the fifth accident in six weeks, McCall hit her head hard enough to be knocked out for a couple of hours and ended up in hospital for a week.

Concussion is a form of mild Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). One in five TBIs are sustained in sports or recreation, with rugby, cycling, and equestrian activities having the highest risk.

The study McCall was involved in looked at the knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour towards concussion among adults taking part in equestrian activities.

More than 40 percent had experienced at least one concussion.

While the majority of equestrian injuries are caused by falling from a horse, a decent proportion also occur while not riding.

McCall and Esteban MVNZ at the Taupo World Cup in late 2016, where they placed second in the tournament. Photo: Ana Rattray 

“There was some uncertainty as to when people thought they should return to equestrian activities following a concussion. Consistent messaging across all sports is needed,” says Professor Alice Theadom, lead author of the study and Director of the TBI Network at AUT.

After being referred to a number of specialists and sport doctors, the picture started to become clearer for McCall.

“We found out it was a concussion that hadn’t healed properly and then having repeated concussions on top of that is why it ended up being so bad,” she says. “It wasn’t that it was one particular bad fall that caused everything. It was more the multiple falls that caused multiple problems.”

Because of her experiences, it is now a requirement for a medic to check riders if they fall during competitions.

“I think some people have been anti it because they think it’s unnecessary but I know in my situation if someone had actually mentioned concussion it might have made us think about it at least, whereas at the time we had no idea,” says McCall.

The head injuries add to a list of broken bones and a battered body that has plagued McCall’s sporting goals and life.

In the year leading up to their “terrible” injury run, McCall and Estaban MVNZ took out the Auckland Manukau Grand Prix, Woodhill Premier League Grand Prix and the Taupo Classic Grand Prix.

On top of fracturing her back twice, she also had an ACL reconstruction after falling during her concussion rehab.

“Because I was still having problems with my balance, I fell over while I was walking. I wasn’t even on a horse or anything and I actually ended up rupturing my ACL,” she says.

Although she had been given the all clear to start riding again she decided the best thing for her at the time was to take a break, have the knee operation and concentrate on rehab.

“I was also still having a lot of problems with my vision and comprehension of things,” she says. “I was struggling to do more than one thing at a time so I was referred to a behavioural optometrist.”

What they worked out was McCall’s head injury had altered her depth perception. She had lost the ability to tell where she was in relation to things and space.

“Once we learnt all of that, everything made sense with what was happening prior to the last big accident with the bowing lines,” says McCall. “Because it was at that point where my vision was the worst and it was making things appear like they were a lot closer than they were.”

“If I was coming to a hole in the ground and someone said something in the background or I heard a noise, I would get double vision straight away,” she says.

“My brain was struggling to basically judge distance as well as follow anything else going on.”

It has taken three years to get to a point where McCall feels comfortable and safe to ride again. She had her first show just four weeks ago. McCall understands she can’t afford to have another bad head injury so has decided to compete at an amateur level now.

“I was very nervous coming back but that’s why I have an older horse because she fixes all the mistakes I make which gives me a lot more confidence to carry on and get better,” laughs McCall.

To stay involved in the industry, McCall and her husband have bred a few horses with a couple more on the way and Esteban MVNZ is now riding with former New Zealand jumper Katie Laurie in Australia.

“I can still get the competitive side through Katie and we’re looking more into the breeding side of things because the interest is still there,” says McCall, who works at the family business – a sand quarry – doing accounts.

Before she was riding horses, McCall and her family were into racing go karts. They travelled around New Zealand to compete in tournaments. Her cousin is legendary IndyCar racer, Scott Dixon.

“I’d always wanted to ride [go karts] but after I broke my arm a few times in racing my dad was like ‘Do you want to ride a horse instead’, and I said ‘I’d love to’ and so within a month he had sold all my karts and everything and I got my first horse,” says McCall.

While trying to get into the New Zealand Pony Club Championship at 16, McCall fractured her back.

“It wasn’t too bad a recovery that time, I was back riding within a couple of months,” she says. “But the second fracture to my back about 12 years ago was a little more difficult to come back from,” says McCall.

“I had just started jumping at grand prix level and I had a bit of a crazy horse back then and I made a mistake in one of the classes and basically came off and fractured my back again. I had to wear a brace for a long time but everything has healed well now.”

McCall says she has learnt a lot from this life-changing period but the biggest take away has been realising people can still suffer from head injuries without hitting their head.

“That never occurred to me in a million years. I also saw in [AUT’s] study how people think wearing helmets can also prevent concussion and that’s not true. I think it’s definitely something that needs to get out there more.”

Professor Theadom says helmets are important to prevent serious injuries like skull fractures, but few people are aware that they cannot completely prevent concussion.

“There is no way to keep the brain from moving inside the skull following an accident,” says Theadom.

McCall’s advice to others is “take the time to rest after a fall even if you think you’re fine”.

“If I realised it was a head injury in the first place I would’ve taken a couple of weeks off and that’s all it would have taken.

“But because I had another fall and another fall, it got so much worse and resulted in years of fighting instead of just sitting out a couple of weeks.”

Despite her injuries, the persistent jumper is determined to stay connected to her horses.

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