St John Mounted Medic Corey Milnes
Words: Annie Studholme
Images: Annie Atudholme & Alastair Laing
Horses have been a common thread through former jockey Corey Milnes’ journey to become one of St John’s small team of dedicated Mounted Medics. It was a genuine desire to give something back to the sport he loves that got him there, but it’s the ability to get out of the back of the ambulance, be involved in equestrian events and interacting with people that sets it apart.
COREY MILNES’ LIFE IN the saddle has come full circle. A Canterbury boy, born and bred, horses were Corey’s passion from an early age. He regularly travelled north to Pukekohe in the school holidays to work his uncle’s standardbreds, and later to work with thoroughbred trainers, Richard and Judy Collett.
He was determined to make horses his career and, after leaving school, embarked on his jockey’s apprenticeship with Balcairn trainers John and Karen Parsons. However, Corey found keeping to the strict weight regime difficult and abandoned his training for a time, only returning to the sport as an amateur in 1999. After a handful of rides, he headed south to Terry Kennedy’s Wingatui stable as a jumps jockey. A brief stint in Japan followed, before signing on for an adult apprenticeship with Ricky Donnelly at Ashburton.
The horse Frayed Knot provided him with his first win over fences in the Brunton Memorial, while Act Naturally gave him his first win on the flat.
In December 2007, Corey’s life changed forever. While he was working in Auckland, a bad trackwork accident left him paralysed with seven fractures in his spine. He spent a month in Middlemore Hospital, followed by three months in the Auckland Spinal Unit before he was transferred home to Burwood’s spinal unit for a further two months’ rehabilitation.
“Mentally it was pretty tough. I had had the rug pulled out from underneath me. One minute I was getting a few rides and really enjoying it, and the next I was told I would never walk again, let alone ride a horse.”
Just as Corey was coming to terms with life in a wheelchair, the feeling in his feet began to return. Initially he thought his mind was playing tricks on him, but what was originally thought to be a tear in his spinal cord proved to be a haematoma, and with an intensive physiotherapy programme, it broke down and his senses returned.
Progress was rapid; within six months he had learned to walk and ride again. He returned to race-riding, but once he’d done it, he opted to retire while he was still ahead.
Corey says he lost count of how many times he was injured during his career. “It’s probably easier for me to tell you which bones I haven’t broken than those I have. Touch wood, I haven’t broken a leg or a collarbone, but that’s about it,” he smiles.
His involvement with St John happened quite by chance. With his raceday riding over, Corey wanted a new challenge and he was keen to give something back, signing up for a First Responder course. “It all really blossomed from there. I was a bit like a sponge and took it all in, and soaked up as much info as I could.”
As a result of the February 22 2011 Christchurch earthquake, where he assisted an advanced paramedic amongst the horrors of the CTV building, Corey took time out. He returned to St John volunteering at equestrian events, and quickly identified how useful a mounted medic (on horseback) could be in areas where ambulances were impeded by the terrain and conditions.
What came out of necessity one wet, soggy weekend at Birch Hill, near Oxford, when ambulances were unable to get out to riders on the cross country course because of the ground conditions, soon grew into a busy weekend role.
St John bosses were initially sceptical. “It’s quite hard to explain how it works and it was hard for the ones who didn’t know, to understand. But they had mounted medics during World War I and World War II and, in principle, we are just like them.” Admittedly, it was seen as a huge risk to reintroduce horses to the emergency services, but Corey says once they were able to prove it could be done safely without putting the public in harm’s way he was tasked with drawing up the necessary policy, procedure and training programmes.
To start with Corey worked on his own but his wife, Kayla, also trained so she could join him. Despite the support, little or no funding meant Corey backed it out of his own pocket initially, working a busy milk run five days a week to make ends meet.
Five seasons on, Canterbury now has ten fully-trained mounted medics of varying levels, from Intensive Care Paramedics to Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) and First Responders that work at equestrian events throughout the season. Nelson is soon to follow as the programme is rolled out nationwide.
The Mounted Medics attend all kinds of horse events across Canterbury, from top level horse trials to grassroots pony club one-day events, A&P shows and now Canterbury Racing’s feature meetings like the three-day Grand National Carnival in August and November’s NZ Cup Week.
While they don’t replace the need for an ambulance on-site at events, the distinctive fluorescent yellow and green of a Mounted Medic meandering around the grounds has become a welcome sight for riders. Being mounted not only enables them to get to an accident site quickly, but having all ridden themselves, the Mounted Medics bring a unique understanding of what can happen. “All of our riders have fallen off our horses; we know what it feels like. We have all been there and we can relate to what a rider is going through. We know that it’s often the small falls that can be the most life-threatening,” says Corey.
In reality, he says, injuries from accidents involving horses are often reasonably serious. Perhaps as many as 90 per cent of their patients go straight from the horse to a helicopter in a bid to get people treated in hospital within the “golden hour”.
Although events have to pay for an ambulance to attend horse events, the Mounted Medics come at no additional cost to the organisers if requested. “It’s a great triangle that works in everyone’s favour,” explains Corey. “It’s entirely volunteer based so it’s not costing St John anything, there’s a huge upskill sitting on the back of a horse which is great in case of an emergency with the additional treatment options they offer, and it’s great for our sponsors too.”
Corey sees one of the big positives to come from the Mounted Medics programme has been its ability to break down some of the barriers surrounding St John. He is convinced that their presence at events has a positive spin-off for the entire organisation, raising its profile.
Although it’s become a huge tie, weekend after weekend spent trekking around Canterbury attending horse events rain or shine, it’s something they all enjoy doing, he says. “It doesn’t get much better than this. I’m out there riding, and that’s what I love. There isn’t really a hard part.”
For Corey, the best part of working as a Mounted Medic is being able to interact with people, being involved in events rather than being stuck in the back of an ambulance, and giving something back to a sport which has given him so much over the years. He classes a good day as one where he doesn’t have to get off his horse. Although accidents are an inevitable part of the sport, no one likes to be cantering over to someone on the ground not moving, but that’s when their experience and training springs into action. “That’s what we are trained for, but it’s more enjoyable when nothing happens,” he smiles.
Since the outset, Corey’s goal was to get the Mounted Medic programme operational nationwide, and he’s excited that it’s now on the cusp of becoming a reality. Its success in Canterbury has generated a huge following nationally with staff in other areas champing at the bit to get involved. “It was just a small seed that was planted, and now it’s grown into an established tree, which is fantastic. I’m just lucky that I get to see it grow. Each year it keeps getting bigger and bigger than the year before.”
Its success has been made possible by a committed group of sponsors which includes Adam White Farrier, Hatton Horse Floats and Irving Engineering, McMillan Equine Feeds, Hyland Sportswear (Australia), Woof Ware Protection Boots, Canterbury Saddlery, Don Clarke Canvas and Saddlery, FMG Advice & Insurance, Helmore Stewart Lawyers, Back On Track and Canterbury Racing.
Corey firmly believes there is scope for Mounted Medics to attend events from other disciplines such as multi-sports, mountain biking and extreme endurance but, at this stage, they were sticking to horses.
Now that his Mounted Medic work takes over most his weekends, Corey has traded in his milk run for a full-time position with St John as a Patient Transfer Officer as well as working part-time as a Clinical Tutor and Equestrian Team Leader. He has also nearly finished his training as an EMT Ambulance Officer and one day hopes to train as a fullyfledged Paramedic.