Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Do horses with broken legs have to be shot?


Complications of Treating a Broken Leg
Horses are majestic animals, but they frequently suffer from serious health issues if not properly cared for.
Horses are majestic animals, but they frequently suffer from serious health issues if not properly cared for.
Tim Graham/The Image Bank/Getty Images

You might be asking, "Even though it's difficult for a horse's broken leg to heal, why not let nature run its course and decide whether the horse will live or die?" Part of the answer is that several painful conditions can develop during the rehabilitation process. Some people consider euthanizing the animal more humane than letting it live and suffer.

You usually can't save the horse's life just by amputating the broken leg. Horses aren't like dogs, which can usually live a fairly active lifestyle on three legs. Horses are heavier and this weight can cause problems for the other hooves. Unfortunately, few horses can adjust to prostheses. Horses must be in good overall health, be able to adapt to new situations and have an owner that's willing to spend his or her time and money on follow-up prosthesis treatments [source: Willamette Valley Equine].

There are many complications of treating a broken leg. Here are a few examples of some of the issues that can affect recovery:

  • Weight: Most horses are heavy animals and their legs and hooves are small in comparison. Favoring a broken leg often forces the healthy legs to bear more than their share of the weight, and this -- along with other factors -- can increase the chances of developing crippling conditions like laminitis and abscesses [source: Moore]. The exact cause of laminitis (an inflammatory disease of the material connecting the hoof to the leg bone, which can lead to their separation) is unknown, but painful laminitis greatly increases the likelihood of euthanasia. Slings that wrap under the abdomen and hold the horse up (taking the weight off the legs) are commonly used for short periods of time, but can't prevent laminitis. Slings can be uncomfortable, cause bedsores and lead to serious gastrointestinal problems. If a sling is used for too long, the healed leg can't bear the horse's weight properly and laminitis could still develop. The weight of a horse must be evenly dispersed on all four legs.
  • Movement: Horses are animals that like to move and there's a big risk they might reinjure themselves at some point during the healing process. A horse with a more relaxed disposition, that doesn't mind having its movement restricted, usually has a better chance of properly healing.
  • Infection: Open fractures are often complicated by infection, which can be further complicated depending on where the infection is located. Because horses don't have muscles below their hock joints (similar to the human ankle), there aren't many blood vessels to carry antibodies to the site of infection, thus making it difficult to treat. This fact makes giving a horse antibiotics difficult as well. Giving a horse enough antibiotics to be effective can kill the horse's natural intestinal microorganisms and interact with important pain medication.
  • Pain: Overwhelming pain is a double-edged sword when it comes to horses. Pain definitely needs to be treated, but you run the risk of overmedicating the horse. If the horse feels totally pain-free, there's a good chance the animal might reinjure its leg. The severity of pain from common post-operative complications, such as laminitis, lies at the root of a decision to euthanize.
  • Cost: The long and complicated process of bringing a horse back to good health can be expensive, and there's no guarantee it'll work. Besides being cost-prohibitive, rehabilitation can be hindered by an absence of available facilities that can treat severely injured horses and a general lack of knowledge.

We've taken a closer look at the questions a horse owner faces in the event his or her horse breaks a leg. Go to the next page for links to even more information about horses.