Ella Rutherford was rising up the equestrian ranks until her fifth tumble killed her career. Photo: Supplied

Head injuries in sport are being taken more seriously, especially as more women become professional. 

All her life, Ella Rutherford has been chasing a dream of becoming a professional horse rider.

And it was all coming together for the Cambridge Year 13 student.

She has already represented New Zealand in equestrian events, she’s been coaching eventing after school and she also has sponsors.

The 18-year-old has been working hard on her ambitions, riding her two horses every morning before going off to school, then after-school work, then back to tend to her horses in the evening.

But three months ago that all turned upside down when her horse reared and she fell off.

“I feel like my hopes and dreams have caved in on me a little bit,” she says from her home.

“Everything I had hoped I’d be able to do I’ve been told that it’s not going to happen.”

Rutherford suffered a traumatic brain injury when she fell that left her unable to speak properly, walk without help, study, work, drive or ride her beloved horses.

It is her fifth concussion and her worst, and as she slowly recovers she has had to make a devastating decision.

Today, in The Detail’s second podcast about head injuries, Rutherford talks about what happened, why doctors warned her about riding and the heartbreak of giving up her dreams.

Sharon Brettkelly also talks to Newsroom’s LockerRoom editor Suzanne McFadden about the high-tech mouth guards being worn by the Black Ferns in their series with the England Red Roses and how they are feeding into a study on concussion at the University of Otago.

The mouth guard research is focused on rugby players.

“The real goal here is to try and reduce the number of concussions in rugby.

“Head injuries sadly are becoming more and more prevalent and especially with women as the game becomes more professional and women are playing more. They’re stronger and fitter than they’ve ever been and that means they hit harder.”

McFadden explains studies already show that female rugby players are twice as likely to suffer concussion as a male player, and they take longer to recover.

As she points out in her own story, concussion is a serious issue in sport.

Rugby leads the way in ACC claims for concussion – in 2019, there were 2643 players who made claims. The next highest sport for head injuries was football, with 723 claims.

McFadden says the results of the rugby head injury research can be applied to other sports.

“The impact of a head hitting the ground or hitting a hard object (being another person), what actually happens in your brain when that impact is made, the movement of the brain against the skull, absolutely can be used in any concussion situation.”

In yesterday’s podcast we looked at the long-term damage from head injuries being done to players in the professional era of rugby, which is leaving some with early onset dementia.

Sharon Brettkelly is co-host of The Detail podcast.

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