For any horse, all it takes sometimes is a wrong step for them to break an ankle or leg bone. We’ve all seen race horses that have broken a leg and had to be put down, or watched an old movie where a horse breaks a leg in a fall and has to be shot to put them out of their misery. When you break a leg, it can usually be casted until it heals so for humans, a broken leg is not typically a fatal injury.
Our modern medical technology is many times able to heal even a seriously shattered leg in humans and even cats and dogs. So you may wonder why horses are euthanized when they break a leg?
Light Bones and Heavy Bodies
Nearly half of the 205 bones in a horse’s body are in its legs. Unlike humans, the bones in a horse’s legs are very light and their bodies are very heavy. This is especially true for Thoroughbred horses which are a common breed of horse used for racing. Because a horse’s leg bones are so light, when they break, it nearly always results in a shattered bone rather than a clean break like in a human.
Lack of Support
Horses can sometimes survive a simple fracture, but a bone that shatters or one where the bone pokes through the horse’s skin most frequently require euthanizing. Horses have no major muscle other than ligaments and tendons lower than the knee and because of this, even with a cast, the broken bone can’t be supported well enough to heal. Reconstructing a horse’s leg is nearly impossible to do.
The Decision to Euthanize a Horse
Many of us would do anything for our pets and this is true for horse owners as well. The owner of Barbaro, a Kentucky Derby winning race horse that had to be euthanized after breaking a leg, had all the financial means to save his horse had it been possible. But a horse owner must weigh the chance of recovery along with the odds of re-injury and the chronic pain and stress the horse will have to tolerate while the leg heals.
Although it is possible to use a sling to keep a horse off its injured leg, horses don’t do well in this type of rehabilitation. They can get antsy and do more damage trying to break free of a contraption that they don’t understand is helping them. Using a sling for too long can also compress internal organs and cause wounds where the sling rubs against the horse. For this reason, there are trained medics on hand at race tracks to quickly assess the extent of a leg injury so a decision can be made.
Outside of the racing industry, the decision to euthanize a horse can be more difficult and take a bit longer. A veterinarian is often called to assess the injury and the grieving horse owner may want to take a wait and see approach to avoid the death of their horse. Unfortunately, in many cases, horse owners spend thousands of dollars and countless hours trying to save their horse, only to realize later that euthanizing the horse is the more humane thing to do.