Sep 08, 2021

A Modern Day Miracle: One Horse’s Rebound from Near-Death to Near-Champion

Sallie Johnson and Fernhill DiCaprio. USEA/ Meagan DeLisle photo.

On the final day of competition for the Preliminary Rider division at the 2021 USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC) presented by Nutrena Feeds, Sallie Johnson and her Irish Sport Horse gelding, Fernhill DiCaprio (Finnanloon Flight x Finnan Scarlet) were named the reserve champion combination after an intense three-day event period in which the pair managed to come in only 0.3 points behind the winner. In March of 2021, Johnson was making an impossible decision – whether or not it was in his best interest to put the gelding to sleep.

According to Johnson, an aggressive bout of acute enteritis, either having presented bacterially or virally, landed the gelding at the University of Georgia (UGA) equine medical center for an undetermined amount of time as he was placed in what the clinic deemed to be supportive care.

“One morning I went out to get him and he was just thrashing around in the field in so much pain,” Johnson recalled. “We rushed him to UGA where they recommended we might have to put him down but I just couldn’t, he is everything to me.”

The members of the UGA veterinary staff were left with a difficult puzzle to try and solve. The gelding was not suffering but at the same time, doctors were unable to come up with an aggressive treatment plan. Performing surgery was a last resort option for the medical staff as they were worried it would lead to worse illness but with Johnson refusing to quit, the gelding was placed on a series of IV antibiotics with round-the-clock care and still no promise of recovery.

Two grueling weeks later, Johnson saw her first glimmer of hope.

“We really had no hope that he was going to get better but we kept on with treatment so long as he wasn’t suffering and then miraculously one day he just started to get better,” she said. “He was skinny and he couldn’t even eat hay, but he could have grass so when we finally were able to bring him home we made him the biggest, grassiest pasture we could.

Assembling a makeshift turnout, Johnson allowed the gelding as much grass as he would eat and slowly began to reintroduce additional nutrition from grain and hay back into his diet. A mere month later, she swung herself back onto his back for the first time.

“The feeling of my first ride with him again was incredible,” she remembered. “I truly thought I was never going to be able to get on him again.”

In a truly unbelievable rebound, Fernhill DiCaprio won his very first return to the show ring and like a fairytale, Johnson soon found herself back on the way to the AEC.

Sallie Jonson and Fernhill DiCaprio. USEA/ Meagan DeLisle photo.

It’s a reality Johnson feels is almost too good to be true.

“I can’t believe we are here. Less than six months ago I was trying to even contemplate what I was going to do if he didn’t make it, but I never even dreamed I’d be at a championship with him, especially this soon.”

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