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Don't shoot! Breaks aren't always fatal, these days

Rebecca Colnar

Once was, euthanasia was about the only treatment for a broken-legged horse. The good ol' days are gone, thank goodness. It's not uncommon today for a horse to be back in competition within 12 months of a once-deadly fracture.

"There aren't many fractures we can't fix today, from broken cannon bones to broken necks," says Ted Vlahos.

"The greatest limitation in fixing fractures is that a horse has to be weight-bearing immediately.

"Humans can use crutches as they heal, but a horse doesn't have that option. It has to walk back to its stall after surgery."

The Sheridan (Wyo.) Animal Medical Center veterinarian notes that the implants used in treating horses--screws, plates and so forth--were developed for humans and sometimes cannot withstand veterinary stresses. The Center, which treated 25 fractures last year, primarily sees fractures most commonly associated with cutting, rodeo and cow horses.

Improved anesthetic protocols, better external supports, such as fiberglass casts, and new anesthetic recovery systems, such as pools and slings, have made surgery more successful. The ability to treat infection is another step forward.

"It used to be that if you had a compound fracture--that is, the bone had broken through the skin--an infection would set in and attempts to repair the injury would fail. Now we have antibiotic delivery systems to treat such infections," Vlahos says.

Vlahos believes fixing fractures is the most rewarding aspect of being a vet, but there are five hurdles to overcome for a successful conclusion.

"Transportation to the clinic is critical. Many otherwise treatable fractures are ruined during the trailer ride to the vet.

"A fracture is going to need support before you transport that animal," Vlahos says. "If there's a wound, cover it tightly with cotton and vetrap, then have your vet provide external support.

"Following that, the horse has to experience anesthesia and surgery without incident, and then make it through recovery," he says.

"Next, there's the risk of infection and lastly, the animal needs to accept the cast. There is also the concern of failure (laminitis) of the opposite limb from excessive weight bearing."

Treating a fracture, along with boarding and aftercare, will set the owner back by $4,000 to $8,000. Bone chip surgery runs in the $1,200 to $1,500 range, with the horse back to training in about 45 days. Many insurance policies cover the cost of surgery and recovery.

Rebecca Colnar is editor of The Mane Points.

©Southern States Cooperative, Inc., Reprinted from Mane Points, with permission of Southern States Cooperative, Inc.