A rotational fall at the start of the 2015 season left eventer Sophie McCormack in an induced coma for a week. She tells Agnes Stamp how the Injured Jockeys Fund's Oaksey House has helped her on the road to recovery

On 24 May 2015, Sophie McCormack, an Oxfordshire-based event rider had a crashing fall at Rockingham Horse Trials whilst competing in the novice class. The rotational fall left Sophie in a critical condition and her horse, As You Like It IV (pictured, above), was put down due to injuries sustained.

Sophie has ridden her entire life, and evented from a young age. After leaving school she took up a working pupil position at Harry Meade’s yard, a role she only intended to do for the duration of her gap year, but ended up staying two.

In 2011, Harry sourced her Pete (As You Like It IV) a New Zealand thoroughbred “with a heart of gold” who had previously competed up to three-star in the southern hemisphere with his owner and former rider Anne-Marie Styles.

“Pete was my dream horse. Before him I’d only evented up to novice, but he took me up to intermediate. He was the perfect schoolmaster — I learnt so much from him,” says Sophie.

Rockingham Horse Trials was their first run of the 2015 season. Sophie remembers he “was full of beans in the dressage, and had a great showjumping round. In the cross-country warm up, he was jumping out of his skin and I thought — laughing to myself — ‘we are going to have such a fun round today’”.

‘Missiled’ out of the saddle

Out of the start box, Pete misjudged the first fence, the Ascending Frame — “a tiny flowerbed” — and jumped into it instead of over it. As his chest hit the fence, Sophie was “missiled” out of the saddle and thrown to the side. Pete’s back end hit her head as he was catapulted over the fence.

The rotational fall broke the eighteen-year old gelding’s neck, and he was humanely destroyed on site.

Sophie was knocked unconscious and stopped breathing for two and a half minutes. It took the medical team two hours to stabilise her enough to safely airlift her (while conscious) to Coventry Walsgrave Hospital.

“I don’t remember being at the event,” says Sophie. “My last memory is getting to the yard that morning. I have snapshots but I’m not sure if they’re real or not — nothing concrete. I certainly don’t remember being on a horse that day.”

In hospital Sophie was treated for diffuse axzonal brain injury (bruising and micro bleeds on the brain) and put into an induced coma for a week. Due to the pressure inside her skull she was fitted with an ICP bolt (intracranial pressure monitor). It took the doctors four attempts to bring her round again.

From Coventry she was moved to the Central England Rehabilitation Unit (CERU) in Leamington for seven weeks. Sophie has no memory of the first month at this neuro-rehabilitation unit and her immediate family have said during this time, “she was chatting, responding to questions and being polite, but her sharpness and personality wasn’t there — what made her Sophie was missing”.

She was discharged on 15 July  2015 when she had learnt to walk and talk again.

Although her NHS physio and cognitive therapy had come to an end, Sophie would continue to have NHS counselling over the winter months as she was suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

She has no memory of how she lost her beloved Pete and consequently has no closure on the accident.

“Counselling helped hugely — it gave me news ways of coping (previously Sophie had used riding as a therapeutic activity) and helped redefine my expectations,” she says.

‘I felt like I was in a washing machine’

A keen follower of racing, it was Sophie’s mother who suggested she go for a one-off appointment at Oaksey House.

Sophie attended a one-hour appointment with Emma Edwards, Oaksey’s neuro physiotherapist and concussion specialist. It was during this session she realised she wasn’t ok.

“Emma asked me to stand up and close my eyes. It felt like I was in a washing machine — I fell over as my brain couldn’t deal with that visual aid being taken away,” remembers Sophie.

Initially she could only cope with an one-hour session at Oaksey House as she was struggling with fatigue. However over the last eight months she has increased the sessions, building up to a three-day stay, two five-day stays and finally two fortnightly stays at the facility.

During these visits Sophie receives expert neuro-rehabilitation, as well as sports massage on her neck and conditioning sessions in which she works on her strength and fitness.

As Sophie is not a licensed jockey, her treatment at Oaksey House has been entirely self-funded.

Last week she went on a short bike ride — something she had previously been unable to do following the accident due to her lack of balance. She is also training for the Bloodwise Blenheim Palace Triathlon (4-5 June) to raise funds for the Injured Jockeys Fund and the Central England Rehab Unit at Leamington Spa Hospital.

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Sophie puts her progress down to the “invaluable” care she has received at Oaksey House: “My balance, strength, confidence, body composition and mental health have all improved by staying at Oaksey. Recovering from a head injury is very, very different to recovering from other injuries, and it requires a high level of expertise. I am completely unrecognisable to the person who was discharged from hospital in July.”

Sophie is planning on going back to university in September and recently she got back on a horse and discovered she has “no particular balance qualms”, despite still being in the acute stages of her injury. However, she feels she will not be ready to compete again until next season as her “brain is still healing and it needs time to recover”.

The Injured Jockeys Fund is Horse & Hound‘s charity for 2016. Donate now >>

To support Sophie McCormack as she embarks on her triathlon please visit www.gofundme.com