Note to readers: I have so many looking for help for their horse’s injured leg that I’ve updated the info in here. I want all the horses to get better!
When I saw the picture of Eight Belles on the ground, of course I immediately thought of Barbaro. Like so many, I cried when they finally put him down, after real efforts to save him. That’s the first horse with a broken leg I’ve ever read about that anyone tried to save. If only the LA Times had gone a big step further in their Special Report to answer…
Why do they kill a horse with a broken leg?
When I’ve looked online before to find out why they shoot horses, I found answers like, oh, horses just have to be free, they have very delicate bones, they need all 4 legs, etc. These are pretty stupid answers. I read dozens of other answers, including one that said horses are more sensitive to pain than other animals…Oh, really? That makes Mother Nature sound very cruel to our grassland friends. What purpose would that serve them in evolution?
How horses use their legs
But I think I found an answer that I can accept. Here’s the best medical answer, what I believe is the definitive answer from a commenter at Ron Mexico’s blog. And I also need to link to the wonderful commenter himself, who wrote this:
A horse has to stand or they start getting fluid build up in thier lungs (among other complications like kidney failure). They are also dependent on movement to assist in moving food through thier digestive tract. A horse has ove 120 feet of gut so intestinal blockage (severe constipation) is a major – often terminal – thing. So bedrest is out.
They can (and have) cast the leg to prevent it from bending. But the long pastern bone (which is actually analagous to the bone of your middle finger that is nearest your palm) is in over 20 pieces. An average horse weighs in the vicinity of 1000 lbs, Barbaro is probably closer to 1200 lbs. Even with the cast for lateral support, the broken (or shattered) bone still has to have the columnar strength to support 300 or more pounds. Sometimes the solution is to actually build an exoskeleton of steel starting at the shoe and screw it into the upper bones.
Just as you would not likely bleed to death from a severed finger, a horse has somewhat restricted blood supply in the lower part of its legs. With a traumatic ingury the flow is further restricted. One problem this creates is a susceptability to infection or necrosis of the damaged tissues. It is fairly well impossible to keep a horses leg completely sterile, so they are subject to some doosies of antibiotic resistant infections.
Finally she mentioned laminitis. A horse’s hoof is esentially a massive finger nail. They stand on the end of the middle finger with thier weight on the edge of the nail. The nail (called the hoof wall) is attached to the last finger bone (called the coffin bone) by a tissue layer called the lamina. If this layer becomes badly inflamed – and this can be from infection, trauma, systemic toxins, or several other issues not so much related to this case – the hoof wall begins to separate from the coffin bone and the weight of the animal drives the wedge shaped coffin bone through the sole of the foot.
Horses are really quite well designed for thier natuaral state, just as a car is well designed for road travel. Usually when a horse has an injury it is in the nature of a flat tire or even a bad bearing – with proper management they can be treated and fixed (sometimes, like our Miss Blue, they can’t be treated and the horse dies).
Equisearch talks about how horses can sleep standing up, which indicates again that horses do need to be on all four feet most of the time.
Not every horse falls asleep waiting around at a show, but all horses can sleep standing up. Your horse has a sort of internal hammock-a system of tendons and ligaments called the stay apparatus. This system lets him lock his legs in position so (unlike you) he can relax his muscles and doze off without keeling over. Even when he’s not sleeping, he uses the stay apparatus to rest muscles and reduce fatigue. Being able to sleep standing up is a great advantage for a prey animal.
(Birds have the same kind of lock-in, which is why they sleep on one leg, resting the other one.)
Some opinions from veterinarians
I am disgusted by this vet from South Africa, Dr Rob Gatley, who sounds like a happy hangman. He decides within seconds whether a horse should live or die. He shoots it immediately. He doesn’t believe in anesthesia.
And here’s an unfortunate example of why Slate thinks it’s such a great investigative journal, but really isn’t: the author interviewed 2 vets, and yet doesn’t give any explanation at all! One, a vet at Cornell explains: “a horse is not Humpty Dumpty.” There’s some great journalism for you.
Glenn Robertson-Smith, a vet from Australia, has an exceptionally clear explanation, and is much more positive than some of the race track vets.
…more recently metal plates, pins and screws have been used.
These implants can restore strength to the broken bone and allow horses to move about and, to some degree, use a broken limb during the healing process.
In most circumstances, a broken bone will heal and regain its strength in 12-16 weeks, but other variables such as infection or movement can slow or delay healing.
…in practical terms, the surgery or operating time should not exceed three to four hours and immediately after surgery, the horse must wake up from the anaesthetic and be able to use the repaired broken leg to stand and walk.
This requirement puts extraordinary demands on the repair and the implants and all equine surgeons have experienced the frustration and disappointment when, after hours of intricate surgery, the horse smashes its broken leg again and bends the metal implants when struggling to stand after the anaesthetic.
To try to prevent this, strong fibreglass casts are often used to help horses waking up from an anaesthetic. Nonetheless, everyone breathes a sigh of relief when it stands, as one hurdle has been passed.
Wiki is not at all helpful, but adds:
The huge costs involved to surgically repair a fracture and then rehabilitate the horse mean that it is financial suicide to attempt to save a horse with a fracture if you are not extremely wealthy.
That’s the saddest answer of all.
In another article, the Times interviews Dr. Larry Bramlage, who treated all of these (dead) thoroughbreds:
“I think we are approaching crisis on two levels,” he said. “One, a crisis in public confidence in racing. And two, I do believe we’ve disregarded durability long enough that it has become a crisis.” (I love the way he refers to the sport first, and then the horse as a commodity. Would you trust him with your horse?)
“Saving horses to be put in the field is not practical. With horse abuse and . . . human slaughter, there comes a place where you have to say the best alternative is euthanasia. If we save him, there is no one to feed him.” (What the hell is human slaughter? And are we surprised that he mentions money again? Get the hell out of my paper.)
Alternatives to help broken legs heal
To end on a positive note, Horse Health says:
Horses CAN recover from a broken leg. But because of the lack of ability to pull weight off of the leg, it is very difficult.
If you can afford slinging the horse for several months, that is one option.
The second is to basically wrap it and let it heal as is. The school did this with a horse many years ago. Has his hock shattered. They turned the hrose out for a year, brought the horse back in, horse was sound as can be! Vets can pin some fractures back together if you got the funds too.
Biggest thing it boils down to….HOw much money do you got to spend on the horse.
Well, Larry Jones, Eight Belles’ trainer, has $400,000 from her win coming in second at the Derby. Would that have been enough to save her? We’ll never know, will we.
Important books on horses’s legs and treatments
Found some books that might be helpful:
Seems like this would be worth trying in many cases, doesn’t it?
Understanding the Horse’s Legs The author gives great details on how horses use and depend on their legs.
At the ABA I found a book that is a true story about a pony who lives with an artificial leg. I think it was a children’s book, but the publisher was too cheap, and didn’t send me a review copy of the book, and now I can’t find it.. . Found it, 3 years later! Molly the Pony: A True Story is about a pony with a fake leg, who does quite fine with her new one! I’m going to put this one on my Wish List.