Rider returns to competition ring after head injury

Chloe McKenzie  competes at the South Otago A&P Show in November on Shianne.   PHOTO: KERRI BACK...
Chloe McKenzie competes at the South Otago A&P Show in November on Shianne. PHOTO: KERRI BACK PHOTOGRAPHY
Two days in intensive care, 10 days in hospital and months of rehabilitation after a head injury last year  has not 
put Chloe McKenzie off riding. She returned to the saddle after just three months and is  back competing and winning championships at major shows. And, for the first time, she and Shianne have been jumping in 1.5m competitions. Mary-Jo Tohill reports.

A South Otago teenager is back in the saddle after a traumatic accident in which she was kicked in the head by her beloved horse.

It happened when Chloe McKenzie (14) was in lockdown with her family at their rural home near Kaka Point during a game of hide and seek that went horribly wrong.

"It was the 24th of April and we were playing, going crazy," her mum Tracey McKenzie recalled.

"Chloe was going to hide. She went a different route (to the horse paddock) and went under the electric fence."

It was a hot day, and Shianne, her 9-year-old Percheron paint-thoroughbred cross mare, was sheltering in the shed with her hind end facing outwards.

The family was not completely sure what happened. Chloe could only remember getting as far as the fence.

The family surmised that the horse had got a fright, and kicked out, striking Chloe in the side of the head.

"We were running to catch each other and my son (9-year-old Lachlan) found her.

"At first he thought she was pretending to hide. The horse was snuzzling her. Chloe was lying on her back with her legs to one side. She was out to it and bleeding."

Mrs McKenzie, who has first aid training, pressed her sleeve and a wad of tea towels to her daughter’s head to stop the bleeding.

One of Chloe’s sisters, Ella (12), who was not horsey at all, came out and put a halter on Shianne, who the family had bred and raised from a foal.

"The strange thing was the horse did not want to leave Chloe," Mrs McKenzie said.

The ambulance was there within 13 minutes, and took her to a doctor in Milton.

"She was not responding in the ambulance."

It was a scary and tense time. Mrs McKenzie went with her daughter, while husband Cameron and the rest of the family, including elder sister Lilly (22) stayed at home.

Everyone was terrified of brain swelling from the injury. She was given a sedative.

However, when Chloe was transferred to the rescue helicopter, she roused.

"I do remember that bit, pushing away the mask," she said.

Two things worked in their favour; the Covid-19 lockdown meant they had the emergency department at the hospital to themselves, and a normally Christchurch-based neurosurgeon happened to be in Dunedin.

The accident happened at 1pm and she was admitted at 5.30pm. The side of her head was cut open, where it was discovered that she had a fractured temporal bone. She had a split ear canal, which was cut further to release the swelling and allow a plate to be put in.

She had two days in intensive care and a total of 10 days in hospital.

"I do remember waking up at 4am and looking back at the window behind and asking, why am I here? I was fine and now I’m not," Chloe said.

"I thought I’d get better and leave, but it’s been a long process. I didn’t realise how bad it was."

They were to discover that the facial nerves on her left side were damaged, giving the lopsided appearance of a stroke.

It had taken four to five months intensive physical therapy to get the muscles of her face working again, and while it had greatly improved, she might not regain complete use.

During her rehabilitation, they discovered other things, too.

"My hearing’s been affected in the middle of my ear."

It could mean an operation to see if the little bones of the ear had been affected or to clear any possible gunk that had collected, or if the damage was irreparable, even a hearing aid.

The most alarming thing for this competitive rider, who had taken what happened to her in her stride, was the impact on her balance.

"The one thing I wanted to do was to ride again."

They told her it could be six months before she was strong enough. She was back on her horse in three months.

"I didn’t have the right sort of muscles after sitting in a chair for so long and I was sore at the start."

Chloe McKenzie, of Kaka Point and her horse Shianne who 
...
Chloe McKenzie, of Kaka Point and her horse Shianne who injured her in a freak accident during lockdown in April. PHOTO: MARY-JO TOHILL

Her determination to get back on her horse had contributed to her speedy recovery. She is back competing, cleaning up in the pony club and utility horse sections and winning championships at major shows in Southland and South Otago. And for the first time, she and Shianne had been jumping in 1.5m competitions.

Chloe said the worst aspect had been her concentration and memory, for instance trying to remember and visualise a showjumping course, especially a jump-off when the course had been shortened.

"I had trouble remembering the order of the jumps but Dad has helped a lot."

Her classmates at South Otago High School had been very accepting of her injury and interested in what happened to her.

She paid special tribute to her friend Katy Gilder who had been at her side the whole time. She considered herself lucky.

"I was lucky because of where it was [the head injury]. You hear some shocking stories, about people who have had their teeth kicked in and the teeth lodging in their lungs."

Her therapy would continue and she also paid tribute to everyone who had helped her, particularly her occupational therapist Maria Connolly, who initially travelled to South Otago to help because it was too tiring for Chloe to travel to Dunedin.

"The hardest thing has been getting tired, just the fatigue, especially talking to people socially. I didn’t really like socialising before but its been really heightened.

"It’s probably made me more confident, because I’ve had to work at it."

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