What Happens if a Horse Breaks a Leg?

Treating a fracture in a horse's leg is challenging, even with the best care. Here's why.


Q: What happens if a horse breaks his leg?

A: It depends on where in his leg the broken bone is and how bad the fracture is. Some fractures are treatable and some are not. If the fracture is below the fetlock (“ankle”), there’s a chance that the horse can be saved, but there’s no guarantee.

Western horse legs jogging

There can be lots of problems after a fracture repair. If the bone break is above the ankle, it’s far more difficult—and sometimes impossible—to try to treat. Sometimes the horse has to be put to sleep to spare him from further suffering.

In the old days, if a person broke a long bone in his leg, like the thigh bone or the shin bone, the doctors would put a thick cast on and tell the person to stay off the leg completely to let it heal. Sometimes this worked, sometimes it didn’t. Now we have surgeons who can put the bone back together with metal screws, pins and plates. Either way, you must stay off the leg until it heals or until the doctor says you can start trying to walk.

Horses can’t use crutches or prop their leg up until it heals. They need to bear weight on the bad leg, otherwise the good legs that are taking the extra weight will start to break down and become injured. And a horse can’t put weight on a broken leg with just a cast on it. The broken bones will just slide apart and break the cast.

Surgeons have tried pinning and plating the bones back together, but a long-bone repair will still often fall apart because of the weight and the forces applied when the horse loads it or rotates on it. Horses are just too big and heavy.

While there are some success stories, we have many more failures in trying to treat these injuries. We all hope that veterinary medicine may one day find a way to repair these large bones successfully.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Young Rider magazine. Click here to subscribe!


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