Why a Broken Leg is Bad News
 By Winniefield Park   •   23rd Jun 2015   •   3,226 views   •   0 comments

It wasnít that long ago that when a horse broke its leg, it was a sure death sentence. Thanks to advances in veterinary medicine and our understanding of horse behavior, weíre able to help more horses with fractures. But a fracture is still bad news. We lost my daughterís OTTB about three years ago to a fractured pastern, and a friend lost her horse to a corkscrew fracture that occurred on trail. The need to euthanize an otherwise young and healthy horse is truly heart wrenching. Hereís why these and many other horses with fractures canít be saved.

Whether a horse can heal fractured bones depends a lot on where the fracture is and what type of fracture it is. Age will also have some bearing, as young, growing horses will heal quicker than older horses. The higher up the leg the fracture is, the less chance there is for healing. While you and I may be able to undergo surgery to embed stabilizing pins to hold a broken bone until it knits together, this is a somewhat more complicated procedure for a horse.

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The horseís instinct to run works against it while trying to heal fractures. You and I understand that we need to take it easy, and not stress the mending bones as they heal. Our horses donít. Itís very hard to immobilize a horse long enough for a fracture to heal. Horses hold a lot of weight up on four relatively slender props, and itís hard to get them to stand on three legs. And, if you can, something called Ďstatic laminitisí can occur that can leave the horse with a painful and debilitating condition for the rest of its life. The weight, the structure of the leg, and the nature of the horse make recovery from fractures very difficult.

Your leg has a fairly large amount of muscle compared to bone, and those muscles help hold your leg stable. Not so with a horse. Below the knee, thereís some tendons and ligaments, but little in the way of supportive muscle. Casts and braces donít provide enough support or protection, and the chance of re-injury is high.

Clean breaks are easier to fix than shattered bones. In our OTTBís case, the pastern joint was shattered, probably starting with an old hairline fracture sustained during his race career. Corkscrew and other multiple breaks are almost impossible to repair. When bones penetrate the skin, thereís little chance of repairing the break. And any fracture that involves the knee or pasture joint can be very complicated to fix, and the chance of a recovery are very low. Partial fractures and greenstick fractures, most often seen in younger horses, can heal with time as they donít entirely break through the bone.

Itís not just race horses that break legs. A misstep taken by a pasture potato can lead to a fracture. Youngsters playing can fracture bones. Sometimes, a horse will have an on and off lameness and imaging will reveal a hairline fracture is to blame. Fractures can happen because of a single trauma to the bone, or a fracture might be the result of wear and tear over time. Microfractures, caused by concussion will heal themselves. Others will heal with veterinary care and time. The good news in all of this is that if a fracture can be repaired, bone heals very quickly and returns to its full strength.

Some people have the impression that owners donít make enough effort to save horses with leg fractures and are taking the easy way out by euthanizing them. But there have been many famous race horses that couldnít be saved, despite their owners having the funds and motivation to do whatever they could to help their horses. Hopefully, this wonít always be the case. But for now, the truth is, a fracture is still very bad news.
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