It’s kind of cool, being a vet. Most people have a general appreciation for what you do. I mean, taking care of animals (horses in my case) is really a pretty cool thing and most people seem to appreciate you for it. However, most people don’t know much about veterinary medicine – and horse medicine in particular. So when meeting me and starting a conversation, they often want to jump in with a question about what-would-seem-to-be-mutual-interest.
So when I learn that I am a veterinarian who cares for horses, there is one question that seems to come up all the time as an ice breaker. People always ask, “Why do you have to put a horse to sleep if it breaks its leg?”
However, even if they haven’t been around horses, people are aware of them as, shall we say, the most important animal in human history. They saw them; in old westerns, on television, in old pictures and in various urban settings where horses happily take blanketed couples on evening rides. People care about horses! So the question comes from a combination of unfamiliarity, a bit of compassion and a bit of curiosity as to why fractures – which are generally treated fairly routinely in most other species – seem to be such a problem. great for horses.
Putting horses to sleep also seems to have been a fairly well-accepted solution to most equine health problems. People seem to think that working on horses can be a pretty hopeless endeavor, especially when it comes to their feet. Such despair seems to be quite ingrained. You know, in the movies, the horse goes all out to save the hero, breaks his leg in the process, and gets shot for his efforts. Racehorses break their legs and sometimes have to be put to sleep (for various and sundry reasons we’ll get into). Heck, cartoonist Gary Larson even got his two cents in.
However, the truth is that you not you always have to put a horse to sleep when it breaks its leg, although sometimes you may have no choice. However, the answer to the question is complicated. And unfortunately, in my experience, the nuances of this discussion make those who asked for it almost immediately regret doing so, but since you’re here and you’ve made it this far, here we go.
- What kind of break are we taking? In a way, saying a horse broke its leg is like saying a person has cancer. For people, cancer can be anything from a small spot on the end of the nose that the dermatologist shaves off in a quick office visit to the cold realization that it better be in order.
Some “breaks” really aren’t that big. For example, I have seen several horses that cracked the large bone above the knee in the forearm (radius). The horses were very lame. The leg was, in fact, broken. He looked horrible on the x-rays. And after a few months in the stall, the leg healed. The bones did not move. The horses were fine. Unusual fracture, to be sure, but not dead as a result.
Other breaks, however, are a huge problem. This is because of the forces generated on the horse’s legs when it runs. A horse is built almost to the limit of its tolerance – with its muscular body and relatively weak legs, it cannot be much bigger than it is. As such, when a horse runs, turns, jumps, pivots or exercises in any other way, it puts stress on its limbs that are up to the maximum of what they can handle.
When these stresses exceed what the horses limb can handle – BOOM! – an explosion goes off in the horse’s leg. As such, not only does the bone fracture into a bunch of pieces, but blood vessels can break, tendons can tear, and ligaments can shear the bone. In such circumstances, there is nothing left to fix. The limb of a person who suffered such an injury would usually be amputated – this is something that is rarely done in horses. But even in such catastrophic circumstances, people sometimes try to mend the fractures; thus, the story of Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner who, despite the best surgeons’ efforts, was unable to recover from his broken leg.
- where is the break A crack in the middle of a long bone can sometimes heal with rest. But a crack that is in a joint will eventually destroy the joint. If that joint is a joint that doesn’t move a lot, a fracture may not be a big deal. So, for example, a horse with a broken pastern can sometimes be saved by screwing the broken bones together and fusing the joint – turning two bones into one, as it were. Horses can move quite normally – even perform – with a fused pattern. But it is much harder for horses to move if their joint has been destroyed.
The higher we go up the leg, the harder it gets. Once you start dealing with upper leg fractures, repairs are almost impossible. For one reason, that’s because they’re so hard to get to. If you wanted to try to repair a horse’s femur (in the back leg) or its humerus (in the front leg), you’d have to dissect through so much tissue trying to get to the fracture that we’re trying to do. fix that you would destroy the leg anyway. And the forces applied to implants in such areas are almost unimaginable – the horse’s leg muscles can pull apart the repaired tissues, bending screws and metal plates like pieces of licorice.
- How serious is the fracture? The more severe the fracture, the more difficult it is to treat. Some fractures are described as a “glass bag”. In such fractures, there are so many pieces of bone that they cannot be put back together. Others, like the ones in the radius I’ve described, are quite simple – just a crack that needs to heal. Even the best surgeon cannot fix the worst fractures – there is nothing left to fix.
- What is the use of the horse? Sometimes you might fix a fracture, but you’ll end up with a pasture patch. So, for example, if you had a horse that fractured its leg, while it might be possible to fuse the shot and save the horse’s life, you would also have a horse that you couldn’t really ride (I ‘ I’m sure there may be an exception somewhere), but there would certainly be a horse that would always walk around with a limp. In the case of a valuable breeding stallion, the cost might be worth it. But the truth is that if, say, a 5-year-old horse becomes unusable as a result of a fracture, many people may not feel that the cost of keeping the horse for the next 20 years is worth the price of repair.
- How much will it cost to repair the break? Repairing a horse’s broken leg is not cheap. Even under the best of circumstances, a successful fracture repair will cost many, many thousands of dollars (those screws and plates you see on x-rays aren’t cheap!). As such, the decision to attempt to repair a horse’s fracture often comes down to one question: “Do you want to this horse, or you want A horse?” If you’re asked to spend $20,000 to fix your horse’s broken leg and end up with a lame horse, well, to be just real, you can buy a really nice replacement horse—a horse that won’t be lame – for the same money.Furthermore, there is no guarantee of outcome, even under the best of circumstances.
The fact is that limb fractures in horses can have terrible results. But there can also be some wonderful success stories that end with healthy horses, or even lame horses living happy and long lives as pets and companions. Deciding whether to try to repair a horse’s broken leg is usually a complicated one – but you certainly don’t always have to put it to sleep!
Dr. David Ramey is a vocal advocate for the application of science to medicine and, as such, the welfare of the horse. Thus, he has been a frequent critic of practices that lack good science, such as the various therapies known collectively as “alternative” medicine, unnecessary nutritional supplements, or conventional therapies that lack scientific support.
This original article appeared on Dr. Ramey’s website, doctorramey.com, and is reprinted here with permission.