- Success depends on the severity of the injury
When breaks are minor, such as small fractures,or when they are still young, the chances for recovery are higher. A foal with a broken leg may have a much better chance at recovery because they are still young and growing, and their bodies are lighter.
Incomplete fractures are when a bone under stress cracks but doesn't break, and those tend to be much easier to heal. This type of injury is more common in performance horses and usually heals, leaving the horse able to perform and function normally.
Complete fractures mean the bone is completely broken through. This generally occurs in a sudden traumatic incident, such as when a racehorse breaks down or trips, or horses kick each other, causing the bone to shatter and break into pieces. Bones that come through the skin may be full of dirt or grass and greatly contaminated.
This type is much more difficult to heal for many reasons and generally is fatal to a horse. In cases of bad breaks, an animal is quickly humanely euthanized because there simply are no treatment options (such as Eight Belles, who shattered two legs at the fetlock and cannon bone).
- Horse legs aren't designed to heal
All horses are big, heavy animals on small legs and feet, and each foot has to support roughly 250 pounds. When one breaks, it is difficult for the other legs to handle that weight. Even after a successful surgery to repair a damaged leg, the other legs may develop laminitis or abscesses because they have to carry extra weight on their other legs (this is what ultimately killed Barbaro, 8 months after successful surgery).
There is no muscle below the knee or hock joint, meaning those leg injuries do not receive the same amount of support or blood flow.This can lead to complications in healing. The large bones of a horse also take a long time to heal. Fractures that break the skin often contact dirt, grass, or manure, making the risk of infection very high.
- Horses don't like to be still
Horses are active creatures. They are designed to run from predators (or today, on the racetrack) and love to move about and play. Keeping a horse from re injuring itself is a big problem in recovery. They can step on themselves, get excited and try to move around, or simply get bored of being in a stall and try to get out.
Many horses simply won't comply with treatment procedures. Ruffian's surgery to repair her broken leg was successful, but she continued to thrash and ended up injuring herself badly and had to be euthanized. Nureyev broke his leg while free in his pasture when he was 10 years old, and he was saved because he tolerated slings and stall rest so well.
When the ex-racehorse Alydar broke his leg at the age of 15, he underwent surgery, but two days later he broke the leg again moving about on it and had to be euthanized.
- Can't they use slings?
Slings are used to help bear weight, but they can't be a long-term option because they do cause other problems, such as bed sores and discomfort to the horse. Some weight is needed to be on the injured leg to ensure it recovers the strength needed to support the horse. The other legs can develop laminitis or abscesses, and the horse may object to being in a sling and struggle, injuring itself further.
- Pain Management
Having a broken bone is painful, and drugs are administered to control pain-- but if you give too little, the animal suffers, and if you give too much, they feel fine and want to gallop around. When horses are on pain medication they may re injure themselves moving around.
- Huge Expenses & Few Vets
Treatment options are also very expensive; the average horse owner cannot afford the thousands of dollars it can take to recover, or provide the care needed. When you hear about horses being rehabilitated, it is usually an expensive racehorse, not an average racehorse or a riding horse. There are success stories, but they are the exception.
When Barbaro fractured his hind leg (in more than 20 places) his owners went to great expense to attempt to save him. Surgically implanted steel plates, specially designed horse swimming pools, constant monitoring and pain management were all a part of his recovery attempt. They had the resources to provide the best care available. But they kept fighting with abscesses and painful laminitis that developed and he was euthanized 8 months after the initial injury.
Even if an owner has the money to try to rehabilitate a horse with a broken leg, which most do not, there are few vets and facilities that can handle that situation. While racehorses may have the benefit of being surrounded by vets and other professionals, few horse owners live anywhere near equine vets or facilities that can handle injuries.
- Humane Euthanasia
The amount of pain and time that the horse has to be locked up in a small space to recover from a bad break is considered by many to be inhumane.
If the horse is kept off the leg, the injury may heal, but the other legs can develop complications, as was the case with Barbaro.
Often the only humane option is to euthanize a horse when they break a leg. Sometimes, it is the only choice, when a break is so severe or multiple legs are broken ( such as the case with Eight Belles).
Rarely, a horse can have a break and be rehabilitated. There are success stories, but they are the exception. Whether a horse can be saved depends on the severity of the injury, the horse's attitude, the owner's financial ability, and the physical condition of the horse.