Also Known As
Broken bone, Cracked bone
Looking at a horse's limbs in relationship to the size of a horse's body, one wonders how those four, seemingly delicate legs, can support and move so much mass. Fractures or breaks in the long, weight-bearing bones or near the jointsin a horse can be devastating and difficult to repair.
Small horses fare better than larger horses with the same types of fractures, mainly because the weight load is lighter. During the last three decades, however, much progress has been made in the advancement of orthopedic techniques with the result that horses that once would have been euthanized can now be saved. Many times, the worst injuries can be repaired and the horse can return to normal activity.
When a fracture occurs, stabilization, pain control, and fracture immobilization are crucial for a positive outcome. Catastrophic fractures are obvious, but proactive measures to prevent fractures before they happen are an important part of good horse health care.
Bone lesions, small foot injuries, pelvic injuries, and fractures caused by strains on fragile bones may be avoided or made less serious by early diagnosis and proper care.
- Inability to put weight on a limb
- Obvious distortion or break in a leg bone
- Instability or movement from one limb to another, indicating pain
- Swelling at the site of the fracture
- Ends of bones protruding through skin
Fractures may be caused by hard falls, accidents, such as stepping into a hole, collisions with other horses, fences, posts, and other immovable objects, or being hit by a car. Twisting or turning of a muscle mass in such a way that the bone is torqued may create a fracture, and compression injuries to legs and feet may also result in fractures.
Preventing equine fractures is almost impossible, but steps can be taken to ensure that horses are not exposed to situations likely to result in fractures. Being prepared for an emergency situation will lessen the chances of a horse's injuries being exacerbated or made life-threatening. Typically, supplies needed for orthopedic injuries include bandage material, clean wound dressing, and material for splints, such as boards, PVC pipe, and tape.
Careful riding habits, combined with good stable and pasture environments, will help prevent many injuries. For example, horses should not be ridden where rodent holes or other depressions dot the landscape. One misstep, and a horse can break a leg, creating a serious injury.
If an open wound or bleeding occurs because of the fracture, the most important actions an owner can take are to keep the horse quiet, quickly cleanse the wound, and bandage it to protect from contamination. Apply pressure if bleeding is excessive and call for a veterinarian.
Stabilization of the fracture, using an appropriate splinting technique, should be done as soon as possible. Inappropriate first aid can have serious consequences and may destroy the chances of healing the fracture.
Given the many kinds of fractures, a definitive assessment made by a veterinarian is critical. The prognosis for recovery will greatly improve with a correct, all-encompassing diagnosis. Once the injury is stabilized and any open wounds or bleeding controlled, the next step is to repair the broken bone.
If the horse is extremely distressed, sedation may be necessary, but too much sedation may compromise coordination, resulting in greater injury if the horse moves around. The veterinarian should be able to assess the situation and suggest the course of treatment.
Usually, the owner needs to make a number of decisions before treatment. The factors to be considered will include patient condition, size, and temperament, location and severity of the fracture, open fracture grade, and cost of the treatment. Large horses with highly fragmented fractures have poor prognoses for survival, as do horses that have lost blood supply to a limb.
In general, smaller horses with good temperaments, in good condition, with simple fractures, are the best candidates for treatment. Surgery in complicated cases can sometimes exceed $20,000, so it is important to request an estimate and to discuss the risks, potential complications, and success rate before a decision is made.
When the veterinarian cannot come to the horse, transportation of the animal may be necessary. If available, a specialized trailer containing a sling that allows the horse to rest and that will prevent the horse from falling will be the best method of transportation.
X-rays and bone scans will help determine the most effective procedure for repairing the fracture. In many cases, a combination of screws and plates can be inserted in and around the damaged bone. Lightweight fiberglass casts are often used, along with internal fixation to add support when a horse wakes up from anesthesia. In some cases, joints may need to be fused to prevent future problems.
Some veterinarians have recovery swimming pools where the horse is lowered into the pool by a sling. This keeps the horse in an upright position and keeps the horse from hitting anything if he struggles. Also, being partially submerged in water seems to have a calming effect on many horses.
Infections and destruction of soft tissue can also pose problems in the healing process. Owners have to be prepared to check casts, change bandages, and take the horse's temperature daily, and evaluate gradual progress to ensure a successful outcome.
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