Cara Raether Carey (USA) is a double threat on the Major League Show Jumping Tour. She is both a team rider, competing for the Blazing 7s, and an owner, saddling Chancelloress for Paul O’Shea on rival team Eye Candy. Here the New York-based rider shares the story of her first concussion, as told to Carley Sparks.
We were getting ready for Spruce Meadows when I had the accident.
I was riding a mare that was coming back from an injury. Stylehaul. She’s a great horse. I produced her all the way up. She’s never stopped a day in her life. I think that’s one of the reasons why it happened, because I was so confident in her. And luckily, that’s probably why I didn’t end up in a worse situation.
We were schooling the liverpool and I think she just saw the water late. She went to jump and then got confused and put her legs back down. And I fell off. I ended up hitting the rail with my face.
At first, I didn’t think anything of it. I thought, Oh, I’m a bit sore. I stood up and said, “I think I need some ice.”
It must have looked worse than it felt though because my team on the ground saw it swelling up right away and said, “I think you need to go to the hospital.”
So I did.
I had all the tests and everything seemed ok. I didn’t have any memory gaps. I never lost consciousness. And, so I went home and I kept packing my suitcase to go to Spruce Meadows, thinking I’m fine.
A couple days later though, I wasn’t feeling very well. It was Labor Day weekend. I’d gone to the grocery store and did some errands. Then I took a shower and that was it. I couldn’t get off the bathroom floor. I felt dizzy. I felt nauseous. I had a serious headache. The pressure, it felt like my head was in a vice. I had to call my husband to help me get in bed. My body just said, Stop. You need rest.
I knew I needed to see a doctor, but it being a holiday Monday no one was around. I couldn’t see a neurologist until Wednesday—almost a week after the accident.
I did all the tests and lo and behold, I had fractured the orbital socket [the boney cup surrounding the eye] and had a little bit of a brain bleed. Still, I kept thinking, I’m fine. I remember everything. But when they gave me the memory tests, I didn’t pass any of them. I remember them asking “Who’s the president?” and I just drew a blank. That was disarming. I realized that I did have a brain injury.
Luckily, the doctor put it in a way that didn’t scare me. She said, “Look, see what your face looks like.” I had two black eyes and blood in my eyeballs. “Your brain looks worse.”
So that was just enough to make sense. It was like, Ok, it’s not superficial.
The protocol for concussions is 12 weeks for recovery and they took it very seriously. At that point in my life and at the age that I was—I had just turned 40—they said some of the damage could be irreversible. And I thought, what’s 12 weeks in the grand scheme of my life?
Initially, it was no screens, no phone. I could talk on a real phone, but not a cell phone. No sugar. No caffeine. No alcohol, obviously. No kicks to the metabolism, so to speak. And 14 hours of sleep, which at first I was like, how am I going to sleep that much?
Granted, they had me on some medications for the healing that did help with the sleeping as well. And once you kind of got into that rhythm of sleeping, you realize that you do need it. I don’t know if I ever made it 14 hours but 12 hours for sure. Your body really does want all that rest.
The doctor explained that a brain injury is not like breaking a bone that will just heal itself. The brain without rest won’t heal, which is something nobody talks about. We all think, if you remember everything after and you don’t lose consciousness, that you’re fine. I certainly did.
It was 12 weeks going to the doctor every week to take the same tests. Then eventually you start working with the physical therapist. It was a long recovery, and luckily I didn’t have any side effects.
Still, it took awhile for me to feel like myself. Even when I started back riding, I felt like a bobblehead some days. So I just took my time because that’s what they told me to do. Some days I could ride one horse and some days I could ride two. I knew that my goal was to get back in the ring in Wellington [for the winter circuit]. So I had time.
Once I went to Florida though, I had a hard time with the humidity, with the headaches. But when it did roll around to January 1st, I felt ready to go.
I think the most interesting thing from that experience was learning about the brain and taking care of it, just like you take care of any other body part. If anything, you should take the best care of it. I don’t think we necessarily understand to do that because there isn’t a lot of information out there. I certainly didn’t know anything about concussions or how to handle one before my accident. So I learned a lot in that respect.
I also learned a lot about my body and listening to it in a different way versus just the physical side.
I have to say, I’ve been lucky. I’ve had some other injuries in my career, but not any head injuries until this one. Now, I take every precaution. I ride in a safety vest. I always ride in a helmet.
You only get one body and one brain. So take care of it.