It has been eight years since his accident, but bull rider Hugh Loring and his wife Shelly are still dealing with the aftermath of a severe concussion that ended his rodeo career.
“I can see he’s changed. He’s not the same person,” says Shelly, who stayed by her husband’s side and nursed him back to health while navigating all the unknowns of a brain injury without medical support.
“He gets angrier easier. And if he’s in a crowded room I can tell when it’s too loud and it’s bothering him, like the walls are coming in on him. Other people might not be able to notice but I can see it on his face because I’m with him all the time.”
His dad a rodeo bronc rider, Hugh rode his first bull when he was about 13 years old and started competing in the sport at age 15 in the B.C. High School Rodeo circuit.
“I grew up around it,” said Hugh of rodeoing. “It was just something you did.”
Hugh says he can’t find the words to describe the feeling of bull riding, but compared it to what anyone would feel when participating in a favourite pastime, just maybe a little more dangerous.
“In bull riding, there’s an old saying ‘it’s not if you get hurt, it’s when,’” he says.
“I just never thought about it. If you’re scared or worried about it, then you shouldn’t be doing it because for sure something will happen.”
For Hugh, that time came in June of 2009 while he was competing at a Bullarama in Coombs on Vancouver Island while Shelly was at home with their then two-year-old son Brandon.
“I don’t remember any of it, but they say it was pretty bad.”
Hugh says his friends have told him he was out of the chutes and riding well until the bull threw its head and horns back, catching him on the chin and knocking him out.
Because Hugh was a left-handed rider and the bull was spinning left, his hand remained stuck in the rope while Hugh’s limp body was thrown around by the bull like a rag doll, causing him to hit his head a second time with the bull’s horn as well as being stomped on by the 2,000-pound animal repeatedly.
Eventually friends and Hugh’s little brother, Greg Junior, were able to free the unconscious cowboy.
“My best friend was the pick up man and he said he looked at me laying on the ground and thought I was dead,” says Hugh, who remained unconscious for 15 minutes after the accident.
Hugh was transported to hospital in Nanaimo where he spent the night and received 12 stitches to close the gash on his head.
Shelly received the call that her husband was hurt and rushed down to be with him.
“We almost lost him. It was scary.”
Despite the severity of the injury, Hugh was released from hospital the next morning. He says he has no memory of the trip home, which took two days because he was so weak.
Hugh received no other care for his head injury other than the initial overnight hospital stay and instead recovered at home for about a month before going back to work, despite his wife’s feeling that he wasn’t ready.
“It was a struggle for him. He suffered from severe headaches and was banged up pretty good, but Hugh’s not a quitter and forced himself to heal and move on,” says Shelly.
Eight years later, Hugh still feels the symptoms of his head injury.
“I get pretty grouchy sometimes. Once I feel it coming on, even if I know it’s wrong, I can’t stop myself. Then I calm down and I feel terrible about it,” Hugh says.
“When I get mad I lose my temper. I call it, when my mind gets talking. And when my mind gets talking there’s no stopping it.”
Hugh credits his wife with helping him learn how to cope with his symptoms.
“She’s seen me at my absolute worst and my worst was pretty bad, and she’s still here helping me – there’s no words to describe what that means to me.”
Hugh admits his pride would like him to bull ride again, even just once so that he could retire on his own terms rather than through injury.
“Sometimes I still wish I could do it. I’d like to get on one more time but I know I can’t. I’ve got these two little boys who are counting on me to be there every day and to do that would be foolish.”
The recent death of beloved bull rider and close personal friend Ty Pozzobon, who took his own life Jan. 9 after suffering with multiple head injuries over his rodeo career, has brought the reality home even more, and opened the door to talk about concussions in an otherwise private rodeo community.
“Most of us are old school,” says Hugh. “You get hit on the head and you just try to get past it and go on.”
But since the couple have had to break the devastating news to their son Tanner about his hero Ty, who invited the six-year-old to Merritt to compete in sheep riding the last two years at the Ty Pozzobon Invitational PBR, suffering in silence from the effects of concussions perhaps isn’t the answer anymore.
“I hope with more people talking about it, it will help others understand just how serious a head injury is,” Hugh says.
“Maybe our little buddy could have still been here if we knew more about it. I’d like to learn more about it myself so I can help others.”
Shelly added she is also grateful to the Pozzobon family for their choice to be open about Ty’s struggle to help others.
“That was the type of guy Ty was.”