Fractured Leg in Horse

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Back in the Wild West, a horse that had a broken leg would most likely have been shot by its owner. Despite advancements in veterinary medicine between those days and today, horses are still put down due to this injury. Today, horses are often euthanized after breaking their legs because they have a very limited chance of recovering from it. Researchers are working hard to try and discover new techniques that will improve a horse’s chance in the face of a fracture, but for now that fix remains elusive.

The terms fracture and break are used interchangeably. It is the degree of the fracture that determines the severity whether it be minor breaks like a hairline fracture, an incomplete fracture, or a complete fracture. Euthanizing is the act of putting an animal to death humanely. As for anatomy: A horses entire skeleton is made up of 205 bones. Out of those 205 bones, 80 of them are located in its front and hind legs.

Keeping this information in mind, let’s talk about why a horses Anatomy makes recovering from a break so difficult.

A horse is pretty much built to the limit of its tolerance – with its muscular body and relatively skinny legs, it really can’t be much bigger than it is. As such, when a horse is running, turning, jumping, pivoting, or otherwise exercising, it’s putting stresses on its limbs that are right up to the maximum of what they can take. Since the majority of the weight lies on the front legs most breaks occur there.

Complete fractures can occur in a sudden traumatic incident, such as when a horse trips or falls or when horses kick each other. This causes the bone to shatter and break into pieces sometimes breaking right through the skin. This is the type of break that is almost impossible to heal for many reasons and generally is fatal to a horse.

This happened to the racehorse Eight Belles, who broke both front legs while racing in England and to Barbaro, favored to win the Triple Crown in 2006, who broke his leg during the Preakness. He died 8 months after attempted surgery to repair the leg.

There is no muscle below the knee or hock joint, meaning the lower leg does not receive the same amount of support or blood flow as other areas of the body. Blood flow is critical to recovery which is one reason why fractured legs rarely heal properly.

This complex system of joints, bones, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, lubricant and hooves contribute to a horse’s amazing speed and power, but is also the cause of its weakness and downfall.

Now, let’s discuss why a horses behavior makes it so difficult to recover from a leg break.

Horses engage in a lot of physical activity, and the consequences of this behavior can eventually lead to deteriorated leg bones and increased opportunities to fail. Recovery is further complicated because horses can’t lie down the entire time they recuperate. Horses are programmed to stand a good portion of the time.

If horses lie down for too long they can get pneumonia and other serious complications.

We also have to keep in mind that a horse is an animal so the horse may object to available treatment options, injuring itself further. When pain management drugs are used they feel fine and want to gallop around. When they are on pain medication they may easily injure themselves further.

Horses are animals that don’t like to be still. They are active creatures. They are designed to run and they love to move and play. Keeping a horse from re-injuring itself is a big problem in recovery. They can step on themselves, get excited and try to move around, or simply get bored of being in a stall and try to get out. Because many horses simply won’t comply with treatment procedures due to their active and playful behavior, re-injury is inevitable.

You may be wondering about treatment options such as a sling or prosthetic. So let’s move on and discuss why these options aren’t very practical for a horse.

Slings are used to help bear weight, but they can’t be a long-term option because they do cause other problems, such as bed sores and discomfort to the horse.

Some weight is needed to be on the injured leg to ensure it recovers the strength needed to support the horse otherwise, the other legs can develop laminitis or abscesses.

In a case where amputation and prosthesis was attempted, even with consistent and constant care all throughout rehab and extreme efforts to reduce stress for the leg and horse, supporting structures in the limb still collapsed leading to the need for euthanasia.


So, as we conclude today, we can see why humane euthanasia is a common way to handle a horse that has a leg fracture due to how much it affects them. The bottom line is that horses can rarely suffer a complete leg fracture and be rehabilitated without complications. We discussed their anatomical structure, how their behavior makes recovery so difficult, and why many available treatment options fail.

Horses are some of the fastest and most magnificent animals on the planet, and humans have shared a special bond with them since the dawn of civilization. They always stood out from other animals for their dazzling speed and unmatched physical capacity. But with all these attributes that make horses the amazing animals that they are, comes the harsh reality that they are also fragile animals that can have something as simple as a broken leg end their lives. Is a broken leg a horse’s death sentence? Unfortunately, until veterinarians, scientists and researchers come up with successful alternatives, the answer is yes.

Cite this paper

Fractured Leg in Horse. (2021, Aug 13). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/fractured-leg-in-horse/



Can a horse survive a fractured leg?
Yes, but it may need to be euthanized if the fracture is severe.
How do you tell if a horse has a fractured leg?
A veterinarian will take x-rays to check for a fracture. If a fracture is present, the x-ray will show a break in the bone.
What can be done for a horse with a broken leg?
A horse with a broken leg can be euthanized or it can be kept alive with supportive care.
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