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What makes horses’ legs so vulnerable to fractures? And what can be done to heal a broken leg? H&H finds out

Horses are designed for speed, which means they have skinny, lightweight limbs that are moved by huge, powerful muscles in the shoulders and hindquarters.

There is only a thin layer of skin covering the bones in the lower limbs and very little soft tissue cover to absorb the impact of a knock or a bang.

This means that not only are bones in this area susceptible to fractures, but also that “open” fractures, where the skin is broken, are more probable. Infection associated with these fractures can have serious consequences.

When a horse gallops at speed, it stores a tremendous amount of energy in the leg bones and if a small crack — such as a stress fracture — forms, the bone may explode, resulting in multiple fragments.

Fractures that involve joints have a poorer prognosis because any damage to the joint surface will increase the chances of arthritis.

A broken leg is particularly serious because the horse has to be able to bear weight immediately after the fracture has been fixed. If it can’t, problems in the “good” leg, such as laminitis, are likely to occur.

Not only do horses have to weight-bear straight away, but they may have to recover from a general anaesthetic, which can be traumatic enough even with four healthy legs.

Padded recovery rooms with non-slip floors are essential and rope-assisted recovery is useful for fracture patients. In some specialist hospitals in the US and Europe, pool recovery systems are available.

Advances and familiarity with sedatives, painkillers and local anaesthetic agents have allowed a number of fractures to be fixed while the horse is sedated and standing, which obviates the need and risk of general anaesthesia altogether. But this requires a surgeon with great skill in this area.

It typically takes six to eight weeks for a fracture to heal, but the rehabilitation period is likely to be four to six months.

Repairing fractures is never a simple and quick job. It can be expensive, too.

It is important that owners seek early investigation and treatment of these injuries, so any sudden onset of severe lameness can be investigated promptly.

For the full feature on broken legs, see the current issue of Horse & Hound (16 September, ’10)

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