Why horses with broken legs are often euthanized

Not long ago, if a horse broke its leg, euthanasia was the only course of action. Racehorses are most often heard of a break, but any horse can break a bone in its leg.

While euthanasia is often still the only option, advances in veterinary technology and technology mean that some horses can be rescued and possibly even returned to work in some capacity. But saving every broken horse is a long way off. This is why.

When a person breaks a leg

If a person breaks a leg, the worst-case scenario is surgical placement of pins to fix the bone, a cast and weeks or months for the bone to heal, followed by physical therapy. Compared to horses, our bodies are relatively light, and our leg bones are larger than those of horses.

We also know that we must stay away from the injured leg so that the fracture can repair properly without stressing or damaging the healing bone. Most people, no matter how complex their fractures, are likely to survive a fracture unless there is some kind of unusual complication.

when a horse breaks a leg

Unlike humans, horses have heavy bodies and light leg bones. This is how we develop many breeds, especially thoroughbreds. When bones break, it usually means they will shatter. And it’s nearly impossible to reconstruct a fractured leg surgically.

While humans have some large muscles and some tissue below the knee and some tissue that helps stabilize fractures and casts, horses have no muscles or any other tissue other than the tendons and ligaments below the knee.

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The lack of muscle and other tissue means that even with a cast, the broken bone has little to support it. Also, it is much more difficult to prevent a horse from carrying weight with a broken leg. The horse is standing most of the time, and when the horse is startled, it is likely to run away instinctively, rather than reasoning that it must reduce the weight of the fractured leg. This makes the chances of getting injured again high.

Horse’s legs are under a lot of pressure

Horses put a lot of pressure on their legs, especially when running and jumping. Also, there are many fragile bones under the knees and hocks. Some bones are inside the hoof, and when they are broken, they are more difficult to stabilize and heal.

More than half of a horse’s weight is carried by the front legs, so these bones and joints in particular suffer a lot. Even when the horse’s bones are healing, other complications, such as static laminitis, can make it difficult for the horse to fully recover without persistent, severe pain.

Repairable and irreparable fractures

The less complex the fracture, the more likely the horse will recover. Greenstick and stress fractures are incomplete fractures that can be treated successfully. Simple fractures, with a clean break, are more likely to heal successfully than broken bones.

Compound fractures, in which the fracture penetrates the skin, are less likely to repair and, in many cases, lead to euthanasia.Fractures involving joints, such as pasterns, are often irreparable. Fractures that occur above the knee are also difficult to repair.

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Signs of a broken leg in a horse

A horse with a broken leg will be in palpable pain. It doesn’t want to put weight on the leg and it will swell.The legs may dangle in a crooked way, or the bones may appear to pass through the skin.

Have the horse checked by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Further movement may mean that the horse will inflict additional damage on itself and must therefore remain as still as possible.If the veterinarian determines that the fracture can be repaired, the horse may be transported to a veterinary hospital.

Illustration: Spruce / Brooke Pelczynski

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your veterinarian right away. For health-related questions, be sure to consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know your pet’s health history, and can give your pet the best advice.


Why horses with broken legs are often euthanized
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