Success depends on the severity of the injury
When breaks are minor, such as small fractures,or when they
are in young or small horses, the chances for recovery are higher.
A foal with a broken leg may have a much better chance at recovery
because they are still young and growing, and their bodies are
Incomplete fractures are when a bone under stress cracks but
doesn't break, and those tend to be much easier to heal. This
type of injury is more common in performance horses and usually
heals, leaving the horse able to perform and function normally.
fractures mean the bone is completely broken through. This generally
occurs in a sudden traumatic incident, such as when a racehorse
breaks down or trips, or horses kick each other, causing the
bone to shatter and break into pieces. Bones that come through
the skin may be full of dirt or grass and greatly contaminated.
This type is much more difficult to heal for many reasons and
generally is fatal to a horse. In cases of bad breaks, an animal
is quickly humanely euthanized because there simply are no treatment
options (such as
Eight Belles, who shattered two legs at the fetlock and
Horse legs aren't designed to heal
All horses are big, heavy animals on small legs and feet, and
each foot has to support roughly 250 pounds. When one breaks,
it is difficult for the other legs to handle that weight. Even
after a successful surgery to repair a damaged leg, the other
legs may develop laminitis or abscesses because they have to
carry extra weight on their other legs (this is what ultimately
killed Barbaro, 8 months after successful surgery).
is no muscle below the knee or hock joint, meaning those leg
injuries do not receive the same amount of support or blood
flow.This can lead to complications in healing. The large bones
of a horse also take a long time to heal. Fractures that break
the skin often contact dirt, grass, or manure, making the risk
of infection very high.
Horses don't like to be still
are active creatures. They are designed to run from predators
(or today, on the racetrack) and love to move about and play.
Keeping a horse from re injuring itself is a big problem in
recovery. They can step on themselves, get excited and try to
move around, or simply get bored of being in a stall and try
to get out.
simply won't comply with treatment procedures. Ruffian's surgery
to repair her broken leg was successful, but she continued to
thrash and ended up injuring herself badly and had to be euthanized.
Nureyev broke his leg while free in his pasture when he was
10 years old, and he was saved because he tolerated slings and
stall rest so well.
ex-racehorse Alydar broke his leg at the age of 15, he underwent
surgery, but two days later he broke the leg again moving about
on it and had to be euthanized.
Can't they use slings?
are used to help bear weight, but they can't be a long-term
option because they do cause other problems, such as bed sores
and discomfort to the horse. Some weight is needed to be on
the injured leg to ensure it recovers the strength needed to
support the horse. The other legs can develop laminitis or abscesses,
and the horse may object to being in a sling and struggle, injuring
Having a broken bone is painful, and drugs are administered
to control pain-- but if you give too little, the animal suffers,
and if you give too much, they feel fine and want to gallop
around. When horses are on pain medication they may re injure
themselves moving around.
Huge Expenses & Few Vets
options are also very expensive; the average horse owner cannot
afford the thousands of dollars it can take to recover, or provide
the care needed. When you hear about horses being rehabilitated,
it is usually an expensive racehorse, not an average racehorse
or a riding horse. There are success stories, but they are the
When Barbaro fractured his hind leg (in more than 20 places)
his owners went to great expense to attempt to save him. Surgically
implanted steel plates, specially designed horse swimming pools,
constant monitoring and pain management were all a part of his
recovery attempt. They had the resources to provide the best
care available. But they kept fighting with abscesses and painful
laminitis that developed and he was euthanized 8 months after
the initial injury.
Even if an owner has the money to try to rehabilitate a horse
with a broken leg, which most do not, there are few vets and
facilities that can handle that situation. While racehorses
may have the benefit of being surrounded by vets and other professionals,
few horse owners live anywhere near equine vets or facilities
that can handle injuries.
The amount of pain and time that the horse has to be locked
up in a small space to recover from a bad break is considered
by many to be inhumane.
If the horse is kept off the leg, the injury may heal, but the
other legs can develop complications, as was the case with Barbaro.
Often the only humane option is to euthanize a horse when they
break a leg. Sometimes, it is the only choice, when a break
is so severe or multiple legs are broken ( such as the case
with Eight Belles).
a horse can have a break and be rehabilitated. There are success
stories, but they are the exception. Whether a horse can be
saved depends on the severity of the injury, the horse's attitude,
the owner's financial ability, and the physical condition of