Do Horses With Broken Legs Have to Be Shot?

By: Alia Hoyt & Jessika Toothman  | 

Barbaro
Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro is held by jockey Edgar Prado (C) and a handler (R) after the horse injured its right hind leg during the 131st Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland, May 20, 2006. Although vets tried to treat him, Barbaro had to be euthanized. PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images

Back in the Wild West, a horse with a broken leg might have spent its final seconds staring down the barrel of a cowboy's gun. Horses were commonly shot after breaking their legs because they had a small chance of successful recovery. Even today, horses are often euthanized after a leg break.

Here's why: It's difficult for a horse's leg to heal due to a combination of factors. Their legs must absorb considerable shock as their powerful bodies gallop at high speeds. 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 fall.

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Another thing to consider is how many leg bones horses have. Out of the 205 bones that make up a horse's entire body, 80 of them are located in its legs [sources: O'Brien and Sellnow]. The complex system of joints, bones, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, lubricant, laminate and hooves that contribute to a horse's amazing speed can also be the cause of its downfall. What's more, 58 percent of a horse's weight rests on its front legs — that's why most of its injuries occur there [source: Swann Equine Osteopathy].

Many problems can affect horses' legs, like inflammation, osteoarthritis, joint issues and diseases and of course, broken bones. 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 — including while they sleep. As a prey species, they must be ready to flee as fast as possible, which is why horses stay on their toes (or hooves to be more accurate) [source: Tikkanen].

However, euthanasia is not always a certainty anymore. New surgical techniques and technology offer options that were once elusive to a horse in such a situation.

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Can You Fix a Horse's Broken Leg?

horse surgery
Dr. Nat White and his surgical team prepare to perform arthroscopic knee surgery on a horse at the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Virginia. Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Though horses are still frequently euthanized after breaking a leg, today's procedure is usually accomplished in a more humane manner, like with an intravenous injection of barbiturates, performed by a veterinarian [source: Nessom]. (The American Association of Equine Practitioners does say a gunshot to the brain is acceptable, preferably with prior sedation.)

And it's not just racehorses that sustain leg injuries — tiny ponies can, too. In addition to kicks and crashes, simple accidents like missteps can cause serious breaks and injuries. Fatigue and the musculoskeletal structure of the horse itself can also be factors. Hard-to-diagnose preexisting issues such as strained tendons, hairline fractures and microfractures can also contribute to broken bones.

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If the worst should happen and a horse breaks its leg, there are a number of factors that help determine if a vet can fix a horse's broken leg and bring the animal back to good health [source: Equnews]. Some questions an owner with an injured animal needs to ask include:

  • How bad is the break? The type of break makes a big difference in determining whether a horse will be able to recover successfully. Horses suffer fractures along a wide spectrum of severity. For instance, having an incomplete fracture involves the bone cracking, but not entirely breaking. This is easier to deal with than a complete fracture, which can result in the bone shattering. Many horses with incomplete fractures can recover. Extensive damage and multiple breaks are closely linked with the possible need for euthanasia. Whether or not the bone fragments protrude through the skin is also a consideration because exposed bone can increase the chance of complications, as we'll discuss below.
  • How old is the horse? Younger horses generally stand a better chance at recovering from a broken leg because their bones are still growing. These horses are usually lighter and put less weight on the injury.
  • Where is the break? Bones in different areas of the leg have different degrees of success when it comes to healing. As an example, a break in the lower leg can be difficult to mend because horses have fewer blood vessels there. The recovery process can take even longer if one of the horse's larger bones break.

However, there are some new techniques for treating horses. For example, in 2016, University of Saskatchewan researchers debuted a robotic lift system designed to help horses better recover from fractures and related surgeries. The technology helps to more evenly distribute weight so that the affected area can heal [source: Williams]. Also, experts in the field continue to refine surgical procedures, such as the double plate fixation method, which has shown significant success in recent years. Unfortunately, it is expensive and many vets are unaware of the procedure or hesitant to subject horses to a lengthy recovery [source: Preigh].

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?" We'll explain why this is not a good idea next.

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Complications of Treating a Broken Leg

mare and foal
Younger horses have a better chance of full recovery after breaking a leg. Tabitha Roth/Getty Images

Even if a horse owner decides to give the broken leg a chance to heal, there are a number of things that can go wrong during the recovery process. 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. They also must be able to get up and down from a lying position, and that's impossible with three legs, given their weight distribution.

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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. Size and type/location of the injury also make a big difference in prosthetic success [source: Henry].

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: American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP)]. 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 [source: Young].
  • 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 [source: Carson]. 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 [source: Equine Medical Care].
  • Pain: Overwhelming pain is a double-edged sword when it comes to horses. Pain 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 postoperative 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.

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Originally Published: Jul 16, 2008

Horse Broken Leg FAQ

Can a horse recover from a broken leg?
Horses have a very small chance of recovering from a broken leg due to a combination of factors. For example, a horse is more likely to recover from an incomplete fracture than a complete fracture. Similarly, the younger and smaller the horse, the better its chance of recovery is. Bones in different areas of the leg also have varying chances of recovery.
Do you have to euthanize a horse if it breaks its leg?
Often the only humane option after a horse breaks its leg is to euthanize it. This is because horses have heavy bodies and delicate legs, and broken leg bones are usually shattered making surgery and recovery impossible.
Why do they put horses down because of a broken leg?
There are many reasons why horses have to be put down as a result of a broken leg. The most common reason is that the majority of times, the horse has shattered their leg bone, making surgery impossible. If surgery can be done, there are still significant risks. Horses spend the majority of their time standing (even when they sleep) and they have a very high flight risk, both of which increase the risk of re-injury during the healing period. Also, 60 to 65 percent of their weight is on their front legs, increasing the chance of developing crippling conditions like laminitis and abscesses during recovery. Other factors include severe pain, infection and the high cost of treatment.
How are horses euthanized on the track?
Today's procedure of euthanizing a horse on the racetrack is more humane than the old shooting method. Horses with a broken leg are euthanized by a licensed veterinarian using an intravenous injection of barbiturates.
Do horses break their legs easily?
Leg injuries, especially broken bones and joint issues, are common among horses. Between 60 and 65 percent of a horse’s weight rests on its front legs and the leg bones are quite fragile compared to the body weight of a horse. Also, 80 of the 205 bones in a horse's body are located in its legs, increasing the likelihood of injuries in the region. Overall, between regular movement like cantering and galloping and activities like jumping, a horse’s legs undergo a lot of stress.

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More Great Links

  • Associated Press. "Tragedy on the track: More sad memories for Barbaro's owners." May 21, 2016 (Oct. 14, 2021). https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/horseracing/2016/05/21/tragedy-on-the-track-more-sad-memories-for-barbaros-owners/84714876/
  • American Association of Equine Practitioners. "Laminitis: Prevention and Treatment." 2021 (Oct. 8, 2021) https://aaep.org/horsehealth/laminitis-prevention-treatment
  • American Museum of Natural History. "An Enduring Bond." (July 7,2008) http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/horse/?section=future&page=future_b#
  • Carson, Deidre M. and Sidney Ricketts. "Fractures in Horses." 2010 (Oct. 8, 2021) https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/fractures-in-horses
  • Engber, Daniel. "Why a Broken Leg Is Bad News for a Horse." Slate. May 22, 2006. (July 3, 2008) http://www.slate.com/id/2142159
  • Equine Medical Service. "Antibiotics How Do They Affect Digestion?" 2021 (Oct. 8, 2021) https://emsvet.com/newsletters/antibiotics-how-do-they-effect-digestion/
  • Equnews. "Why we euthanize horses when they break their leg." Dec. 18, 2014 (Oct. 8, 2021) https://equnews.com/miscellaneous/lifestyle-en/why-we-euthanize-horses-when-they-break-their-leg
  • Monaco, Pete. "A breakdown of track surfaces in the horse racing world." The Spectrum. Dec. 9, 2018 (Oct. 8, 2021) https://www.thespectrum.com/story/sports/2018/12/09/breakdown-different-horse-racing-track-surfaces/2206510002/
  • Nesson, Lisa DVM. "Methods of Equine Euthanasia." March 14, 2019 (Oct. 8, 2021) https://www.irongateequine.com/education/methodsofeuthanasia
  • O'Brien, Anna. "7 Facts About Your Horse's Skeleton." Horse Illustrated. Oct. 28, 2016 (Oct. 8, 2021) https://www.horseillustrated.com/horse-resources-7-facts-about-your-horses-skeleton
  • Preigh, Margaret. "Big Choices: How TAMU Innovation Transformed Equine Fracture Treatment." CVMBS News. Aug. 31, 2020 (Oct. 8, 2021) https://vetmed.tamu.edu/news/press-releases/big-choices-how-tamu-innovation-transformed-equine-fracture-treatment/
  • Sellnow, Les. "It All Hinges on This." The Horse. 2006 (Oct. 8, 2021) https://s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/thehorse/files/Y/Joints-It-All-Hinges-on-This.pdf
  • Swann Equine Osteopathy. "EQUINE BIOMECHANICS RESEARCH - THE SIGNIFICANCE OF A HORSE'S CHEST SLING MUSCLES." Dec. 5, 2017 (Oct. 8, 2021) https://www.swannequineosteo.com/blog/2017/12/5/equine-biomechanics-research-the-significance-of-a-horses-chest-sling-muscles
  • Tikkanen, Amy. "Why Do Horses Sleep Standing Up?" Britannica. 2021 (Oct. 8, 2021) https://www.britannica.com/story/why-do-horses-sleep-standing-up
  • Williams, Alison. "New Device Gives Horses a Healing Lift." Horse Journals. March 27, 2016 (Oct. 8, 2021) https://www.horsejournals.com/horse-care/illness-injury/first-aid/new-device-gives-healing-horses-lift

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