What would be a relatively simple, if painful, injury for a human means the end for a horse. The following answers explain why it’s necessary to put down a horse with a broken leg.
Horse bones are incredibly dense and fairly difficult to break, but when they do break they do not heal well, easily, or quickly and are very prone to infection. Most would die a slow painful death from infection, even with antibiotics and other medical care. Those that survive would most likely not have full use of the leg, and have a leg prone to break again.
I am a vet student focused on equine medicine and was just recently discussing this with one of my professors who is a renowned equine surgeon and has cut open more horses than most people have ever seen.
There are several reasons:
- Horses are pretty weird anatomically – they have no muscles below the knee. Part of their ability to run super fast is this really incredible tendon/ligament system – muscles higher on the body load the tendons and ligaments with huge amounts of power (picture a spring). Because of this, the bones in their lower leg (which is almost always where they break) are relatively very thin but also generating massive power. This ratio is much more extreme in the horse than other animals, so it means that solving it with a few pins like you might in other animals won’t do the trick. In addition, this massive power makes it more likely that the horse will basically shatter the bone rather than just a simple break or fracture . Also, they’re just really big.
- If the horse can’t move his legs around, he can’t circulate blood through properly and it somewhat pools in the hoof and the attachments of the hoof to the bottom of the leg weaken. Compare this to a human or dog, where we can wiggle our toes and whatnot to help move circulation through – remember, horses have no muscles below the knee.
- Trying to keep a horse from moving around for any extended period of time is a nightmare. There’s a saying I heard that all horses have two goals in life: homicide and suicide. They will colic and die if a bird looks at them wrong. In addition to the possibility of foundering, a horse is pretty likely to just lose his marbles if you try to keep them sedentary for too long – they may try to climb out of their stall, break whatever apparatus they’re in, colic (severe and sometimes fatal stomach ache), get ulcers and whatever else. You can’t force them to lay on their side for very long at all – they’re too heavy and will have difficulty breathing and damage nerves.
I had a horse who recovered from a broken leg. It was a very long, very difficult recovery, and was down to the incredible commitment of the vet and the amazing nature and will of the horse.
Bertie was an Irish Draught X Thoroughbred, and was about 25 when it happened, pretty old for any horse. I was on holiday, and someone had taken him for a ride without my permission, or that of the person looking after him (my sister) for me. I was told that he stumbled while cantering across a field. The vet took one look at him and decided he needed to be destroyed. My sister requested another vet. Geoff agreed to try, but admitted that saving him was incredibly remote. If nothing else the general anaesthetic that would be needed to operate, would be likely to kill a horse of his age. She told them to try. He was in theatre for hours, but he made it through. At this stage I came home and discovered what had happened. His leg was held together with more metal than bone, and the whole thing had been somewhat experimental, and we really were only at the beginning.
Once back home, we made some adaptations to his stable. He needed to stay still, for a weeks, and his big roomy stable wasn’t going to work. We put a temporary wall in to cut the size in half, stopping him from being able to move about. We raised his water and feed bowls and so they, with his haynet, were at nose height.
After almost 3 months he was allowed to start moving about. The wall was removed, though he was still tied to prevent him laying down (the strain on his leg while getting down and up again could be enough to destroy his progress) Next we moved on to walking, starting with about 20 feet, gently increasing as he became stronger. It was over a year before he was able to be turned out in the field with his friends, and another before I rode him again. Throughout it all Bertie stayed the same gentle, trusting, beautiful natured giant he had always been.
Geoff (the vet) was incredible. He had fought to get Bertie treated and operated on at the amazing Animal Health Trust in Newmarket (they took him on with no charge), and Geoff never charged a penny for his time either. Geoff is a man of very few words, and most people find him a tad stand offish. After witnessing him ‘dropping in on his way home’ (which was nowhere near his way home) every night for over a year, I can tell you Geoff is a vet who doesn’t give a toss about the owners opinions, he is only concerned about the animal, and in my books that makes him a very good vet.
Bertie eventually passed away 12 years later. He lived to a ridiculous age. He had been unusually quiet and laying down more than normal. I sat in his stable with him and we both knew it was the end, and shortly before Geoff arrived, Bertie had a massive heart attack. Both Geoff and I sobbed as he finally put him to sleep. I still tear up remembering him today. He was a very, very special horse.
One horse leg on average holds up 300 pounds of horse and is used to surviving an immense amount of punishment, because running is what horses do. So while you see stories of some dog using a prosthetic or getting a cast, that’s because they lay down most of the time, are relatively light for their size, and have enough shit to do without running. A horse would break a prosthetic in a week, and it would be absolute torture to many to keep them from running for 3 months.