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Ralphie: All healed and growing strong

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Ralphie’s Facebook kill pen debut said he was 2 years old, well started and ready for anything. At barely 13 hands, he was probably too small to work on an Amish farm, which may be why he landed on a kill lot.

His kill pen ride wasn’t pretty, but he appeared to be started and at least familiar with taking a bit and carrying a saddle and human on his back.

We thought he’d sail through his 30-day quarantine, and after a quick tune-up, we’d find him a forever home pretty quickly. Who wouldn’t want an adorable, healthy, well-started gaited colt that travels well? That’s perfect for someone who wants to learn and grow with their horse!

That was Christmas 2017. Since then, Ralphie has been the gift that keeps on giving.

The Real Ralphie

When Ralphie arrived at Swingin’ D, we couldn’t believe how small and scrawny he was. He looked so much bigger at the kill pen with a saddle and rider on his back. There was no way he was 12 hands, let alone 13.3. He was so thin and small, our trainer wouldn’t ride him until he put on substantial weight. But weight wasn’t Ralphie’s only problem.

The little guy had a lung infection, a skin infection and was terrified of everything. We’d taken in skittish horses in the past, but Ralphie was dangerously skittish and unpredictable. If anyone tried to touch him, bolted wildly, without respect for human space. Because of his deep-seeded terror, Ralphie’s chances for rehabilitation and adoption were slim to none. Many a trusted horse person told us he may be our first failure. He couldn’t be saved.

Because we were unable to handle Ralphie for weeks after his arrival, our vet could only examine him briefly. She said he was malnourished, had a fever, unhealthy skin and a lung infection, and - in absence of x-rays - she said the hump above his tail was likely a deformity. Nope.

I worked for weeks to get Ralphie to trust me, tying Walmart bags to his grain bucket, desensitizing him with training aids and talking to him for hours. Feeding time was Our Time, when I’d sit at Ralphie’s bucket and let him hear my voice  – whether reciting the alphabet, singing songs or just blabbering. He eventually grew to associate my voice with comfort.

It was nearly a month before Ralphie would allow me to lay a hand on him. I couldn’t imagine what this little horse had gone through to be so terrified of humans, but I just kept telling him he was safe, and that I’d never let anyone harm him again. And he knew I meant it.

What Lies Beneath

When Ralphie finally trusted me enough to halter him, we took his desensitization training to the next level. It’s one thing to stand there with a halter and lead; it’s quite another to allow the human who controls the lead to handle you.

Winter weather limited our ability to bathe and groom Ralphie until spring. That was when we found the calamity that was brewing under that deformed tail. It turns out the tail was not deformed, but at some point was smashed and broken, sending pieces of bone to the skin’s surface.

What started as a line of lesions hidden by hair, exploded into an e.Coli infection that threatened to force us to amputate.

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Because we spent a minimum of an hour a day handling Ralphie, vigorously washing his wounds, shaving, spraying and wrapping his tail, we desensitized him in a way we could never have accomplished if not for our efforts to save his tail. And he grew to trust and love us.

For months, we tried every wound treatment known to mankind in an attempt to save Ralphie’s tail. A vet recommended we immediately amputate when an x-ray showed the infection had reached bone.

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Never Surrender, Never Give In

It’s cute when people tell me something can’t be done. Truly. Adorable. 

We knew no adopter would take a second look at a scrawny, skittish young horse – let alone one without a tail; so amputation was out of the question. We were going to save that tail; and Ralphie was, by God, gonna like it.

On April 24, 2019, a year after we began the most expensive tail-salvage expedition in the history of horsedom, after cleaning and dressing Ralphie’s tail every single day, our vet proclaimed him clear of infection! X-rays showed the infection had left the bone. By May 13, the last lesions were almost completely closed.

A funny thing happens when a horse is able to use calories for their intended purpose and not to heal an invading infection. As the e. Coli left Ralphie’s system, he began to grow like a normal horse! Not only has he gained more than 200 pounds, he’s grown a full hand since his body is able to appropriately use nutrients.

He still has a way to go. His tail was bound up for so long, he’s going to have to learn how to use it again. But Ralphie is no longer the hopeless horse with a slim-to-none chance for survival. He’s a strong, healthy, loyal companion with a gigantic heart; and, with the right adopter, his future is as bright as the sun.