Bone Breaks in Horses

horse walking in fieldWhat to Expect When a Horse Breaks a Bone

It is important to note that any and all bone breaks/fractures in horses require immediate veterinary attention!

We have all heard that horses must be euthanized if it breaks a leg. But what is the truth about bone breaks in horses and why can they be so devastating? The good news is that not all bone breaks mean a death sentence for your equine. Situations and therapies vary with different horses and different kinds of breaks. Yet there is a lot to consider when your horse comes up with an injury such as a fracture or leg break.

Usually a horse will become obviously lame when a bone is broken, yet there are many other possible injuries and reasons for your horse coming up lame. Please also see Lameness and Leg Treatments for more information on the subject of lameness that does not include bone breaks.

Here is a summary of different types of fractures and important terminology:

Hairline Fracture: Usually evident by mild lameness. Bone is cracked in the outer layer only. The tissue surrounding the crack is minimal. Hairline fractures become dangerous when not recognized and continued work/trauma may cause further damage to the area.

Simple Fracture: Only one fracture line in one bone with no displaced bone pieces.

Incomplete Fracture: A shallow break in the bone.

Compound Fracture: Bone breaks through skin and introduces risk of bad infection.

Comminuted Fracture: Two or more bones are broken or crushed.

Open Fracture: Bone has broken through the skin.

A break can also be a combination of different kinds of fractures. For example, a horse may have a compound/comminuted fracture (a very devastating kind of break). Obviously the less intense the damage the more chance of successful recovery. Where the broken bone is located and its function is a large factor in recovery process. It isn’t a black and white case when a horse fractures a bone. There are many factors to consider when assessing the situation.

If A Horse Breaks a Bone Should It Be Euthanized?
Usually a horse will become obviously lame when a bone is broken. The outcome depends on many factors that vary from case to case. Many horses obtain simple or hairline fractures and recover with rest and proper care. Others have complications, or have much more serious injuries. Miracles do occur and horses that should have succumbed to a serious break have come back with flying colours. Other times a mild break causes bad complications. Horses are prone to devastating leg breaks because of their weight and power. Think of a piece of chalk. If you were to push it down with weight and force it would crush into itself and crumble. It is a similar situation with a horses leg bone. An injury like this is often seen on the racetrack and usually results in euthanasia. Yet not all fractures happen this way nor do they all result in death.

It is amazing what the veterinary surgeons can do nowadays. They can plate and screw bones together. They can fuse joints. There is even an equine external fixation device so the horse can support its whole weight while recovering. If you want it fixed the veterinarians will usually try. But at what cost? And I’m not talking simply finances. A number of things must be considered for the well being of the horse.

A major hurdle with horses is that a fracture that extends into a joint area will almost certainly plague the horse with a lifetime of arthritis (which may be crippling in itself even when the break is healed). Another common problem with fracture recovery occurs when a horses weight is spread on three legs instead of four. A horse is not built to survive on three legs. Often the horse will founder on an opposite foot, which is called “contralateral limb laminitis”. Infection can also present serious issues if the injury is open. It is not easy (although sometimes possible) to rehabilitate a horse. Consider these factors:

Severity, Location and Probable Outcome: Many people have been unfortunate enough to witness an equine accident where the results are so devastating and painful that the only kind thing to do is euthanize. Generally cases like this are obvious when seen. In open comminuted/compound fractures only about 10% of horses survive. Yet there are many cases where the outcome and recovery looks positive. Many breaks in the foot can be corrected with plates, screws and proper shoeing. A broken scapula can often be healed with three to six months of stall rest. However, a broken humerus (or other large bones) is considered life threatening. These are things that need to be discussed with the vet. Is the probably outcome acceptable to you? Would it be acceptable to your horse?

Quality of Life During and After Recovery: One must consider the toll recovery will take on the horse. Youngsters do much better with surgery and recovery (often because they weigh much less). Stall rest can prove to be difficult or impossible depending on the personality of the horse. You can keep a horse in a stall but that doesn’t mean they won’t or can’t move. How would your horse cope if it had to be held in a sling? Some horses will be all right being poked, prodded, going under the knife and locked up. Others will fight and want to run. One must think about how their particular horse can deal with recovery and life after recovery. Be realistic with what that horse will be able to do once healed. Be aware of possible arthritis problems, laminitis, recurring infections, and recurring injuries. Broken bones can often mean the end of a horse’s athletic career. Will the torture of the whole ordeal out weigh the possibility of healing and recovery? How will the animal’s quality of life be after healing is completed? This varies with different horses in different situations and needs to be considered realistically.

Economics: As sad as it seems this factor must be considered realistically. A simple fracture can put the owner back thousands of dollars. Any drugs for equines are astronomical because of their weight. How much can you realistically spend on vet bills?

When dealing with such a situation one must consult with their vet and discuss the severity of the break, personality of the horse, the realistic outcome and cost. While serious injuries such as broken bones can be devastating to both the horse and owner it is important to do what would be best for the horse. Even if this is a very hard decision your horse will thank you and you’ll live forever with the fact that you did the very best you could for your beloved equine.

Prevention of Bone Breaks and Safe Riding
While you cannot always prevent accidents you can do your best to make the situation as safe for you and your horse as possible.

*Do not push your horse past what it can physically handle. Many western performance horses, dressage, hunter/jumpers, and especially racehorses come up with fractures because they are pushed too hard too soon (often on bad ground).

*Wear a certified helmet and proper footwear.

*Ride on good footing.

*Make sure the pasture/paddock is free of holes and dangerous spots.

*Maintain good fencing.

*Maintain good shoeing practices.

*Keep in mind low bone density can be hereditary.

*Use common sense.

by Adrianne Lake