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  • David Jefferson

There is something about riding down the street on a prancing horse that makes you feel like something, even when you ain’t a thing………. Will Rogers

One reason for euthanizing horses “before their time” is leg fractures. A question I have been asked many times is: “Do you still have to put down horses with broken legs?” The simple answer is, “it depends”.

Would you consider skiing down a mountain knowing that if you broke your leg that would be the end of you? Me either. Hundreds of skiers suffer fractured legs every year, and within months most are walking without a limp. So why is it that you can’t fix a horse with a broken leg? What’s the story here? Are horse doctors so far behind medically that they have to kill the problems they can’t fix?

In order to answer this question, let’s return to the ski slope. Ann, trying to avoid a small child, veers off course, hits a patch of ice and is thrown into a tree. She struggles to get up, but can’t bear any weight on one leg. Within minutes the ski patrol has arrived and has air splinted her leg. Soon Ann is sledded down to an ambulance, and is on her way to the hospital. On the way care is taken to insure that there is no leg movement. At the hospital X-rays are taken and show a complete midshaft fracture of the femur. That’s the big leg bone that runs from our hip to the knee. Complete means that the bone is broken in half. It is a bone literally in two pieces, a far more serious situation than just a crack in the bone.

Muscles around Ann’s complete fracture went into spasm immediately after the break. Now the two ends of the bone may no longer be in alignment. That’s the surgeon’s first job. It requires muscle-relaxing drugs to ease those powerful leg muscles and special appliances used to pull the bones back into place. It will take hours, sometimes days with Ann on her back, her leg elevated by cables and pulleys. Once the two ends are in alignment, a fixation system will be applied, which, in this case, includes hardware-like rods, screws, and plates, and then, often, a full length cast. At this point the fracture is not really “fixed”. The bones have just been brought back into position and kept from moving so that the body can begin the true repair. Ann’s fracture will heal if the blood supply is not too severely damaged and if the reduction and fixation are successful. She will have to keep her leg elevated as she lies on the couch for weeks. Then the progression is from couch to crutches, perhaps a walker, and finally, Ann will likely ski again.

Let’s compare Ann’s fractured femur with what happens to a horse with the same bone, the femur, with a similar break. Most of the ones I have seen have been from slips on winter ice or slick mud. The horse can fall with one leg too far under the body. As the huge weight of the hind end is driven onto that leg, the bone can snap. It happened to my own horse, Pat, whom you will learn about in a later chapter. I have been called out in the early morning on several occasions to check on a horse who might have been lying on that fractured leg for several hours. Sometimes the owner and some friends have been trying to get the horse up for an hour or more. Typically the horse is laying on the fractured leg. It usually takes at least 3 people to safely roll a 1000 pound horse over onto his other side. Once the horse is rolled over and the broken leg is on top, the leg will bend unnaturally in the middle.

If we suspect a fracture, but aren’t sure, X-rays will be necessary. Most equine vets carry an X-ray machine, but there is the problem of getting power to a horse way out in a field. Some portable X-rays are battery powered, but even so the X-Ray has to penetrate the huge muscles of the hind leg. The muscle mass can cause the X-rays to scatter enough to prevent getting a good diagnostic image. X-Ray machines powerful enough to get detailed images of that big leg don’t fit in a truck. Another issue is that the animal still has to be transported to the nearest major equine hospital. This is not an easy job in any non-walking horse. If there is a complete separation of the bone as in Ann’s case, the two ends have to get lined back up just as with her broken leg. For that to happen it would mean general anesthesia or at least profound tranquilization to ensure that the horse remains still for hours while the muscles are stretched out to get the ends back in position. I’m sure you are seeing the problem. All this technically can be done with horses less than a year old, but when I see a full grown horse with a complete fracture of the femur, I recommend immediate humane euthanasia. The fact is, this leg cannot be stabilized so the fracture can be repaired. There is a somewhat better chance in dealing with the tibia, the bone between the stifle and hock, but it is still very challenging.

I suppose if a 1000 pound horse fractured one of these big bones while in the operating room of an equine hospital there might be a chance. Even so, it would be a very difficult repair with a guarded prognosis. Fortunately, big bone fractures of horses are rare. Successful repairs of this type of break have been mostly limited to youngsters.

On the bright side, there has been a tremendous amount of progress made in the last 20 years on bone fractures in horses. Cannon bones, and occasionally tibia repairs are successful with advanced orthopedic equipment in the hands of skilled veterinary surgeons. Horses with fractured pasterns that used to be considered hopeless now have at least a chance of being mobile again. Fractured coffin bones will usually heal in six months, and new techniques may have a race horse returning to work in half that time. Of course, part of the owner’s decision is always the expense on an uninsured animal.

Skilled small animal orthopedic surgeons often repair every conceivable type of fracture in dogs or cats hit by cars. Dealing with horse leg fractures is completely different. The size and temperament of horses makes repair of big bone fractures impractical and usually impossible. So, as I said, it depends, but too often we have no choice but to put these unfortunate animals down.

We should never underestimate the powerful draw of a bond with a being that loves us unconditionally, asking very little in return. Losing this comfort and source of joy can be incomprehensible……….Linda Lipshutz

  • David Jefferson

  • David Jefferson

Sammy was a pretty gray mare. Pretty to look at, and pretty darn smart. I was on the

farm that day to vaccinate everyone, and when she was brought out of the stall I noticed her

big right knee. I asked her owner what was going on and she said, “Oh, It’s my fault, and I feel

awful about it. I got up later than usual two days ago and before I even got to the barn I heard

her banging on the stall door. Whenever I’m late, or if I grain someone else first she either

starts kicking the walls, or banging the stall door with her knee.” I think this owner should feel

awful about the situation, because she caused it. Not by being late, but by letting herself be

trained by her horse instead of the other way around. Good job, Sammy.

Horses have the most amazing internal clocks. Feed them for three days in a row at

7AM, and at 6:58 on day four they’re looking for you. With horses like Sammy the anticipation

becomes physical. Do the same 45 minute workout with your horse every day, and then go a

few minutes over and you may well notice a sudden lack of motivation from your animal.

Sounds a little like us when quitting time comes.

If you stick to a regular schedule, your animals very quickly learn your timing, all

without the benefit of clocks. Here is a suggestion. Instead of always being on schedule as

you do chores around the barn, vary the time that you show up. Be regularly irregular. For

example, if you usually feed up at 7 AM, show up tomorrow at 6:45 or 7:15. If your horse is

used to a one hour work out, make it 50 minutes next time and maybe the next day an hour

and 15. If you always show up after a work day at say, 5:30, run some errands first and be late.

Vary your schedule enough and, as ironic as it seems, your animals will feel more secure as they

learn that eventually you will show up, and that there is no sense in getting in a tizzy because

you aren’t punctual.

An excellent trainer once told me that if he is heading home from a ride and his horse

begins to jig a little faster when the driveway to the farm comes in sight he just rides right on

by, and goes another 5 or 10 minutes past his place. Then he turns his horse and heads back

home again. If the horse starts to get anxious to turn in from that direction, the trainer again

just rides on by. He told me that he will keep this up, no matter how long it takes, until the

horse finally will walk by the drive without speeding up. When they arrive at the barn he

praises the horse and puts him up. Next time the acceptance comes quicker. This wise trainer

told me that every minute spent with a horse is a teaching opportunity. He said he has been

late to more than one family dinner to make a point with the animal he is working with.

“Throw away your clock and your own schedule when a particular issue needs to be resolved.”

Understand, I’m a veterinarian, not a trainer, but it’s not unusual for me to come into

contact with at least one horse every day who decides what will happen, and when. This was

taken to an all-time low about 10 years ago when I arrived at a farm just as my client was

coming in from a trail ride. I asked her where she went for her ride, and she replied, “not too

far today, he only wanted to go for 15 minutes, and then he turned and headed for home. He

decides where we are going and how long we are going to be gone.” No surprise that this

horse is very difficult for me and the farrier to work on. Just picking up a foot is a project. The

decisions concerning all your animals should be well thought out and should, of course, include

their welfare, but you should always be the leader.

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