Spring 2019

Unbroken

Thanks to recent veterinary advances, leg fractures in horses don’t have to be life-threatening—or even career-ending.

By Genevieve Rajewski

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X-rays of a horse leg before (left) and after undergoing a successful fracture repair at Tufts Equine Center. Photos: Courtesy of José M. García-López

There’s a dangerous misconception—even among many equine veterinarians—that a horse that breaks a leg must always be euthanized, said José M. García-López, an orthopedics expert board-certified in surgery and sports medicine and rehabilitation at Tufts Equine Center. Cummings School veterinarians successfully repair as many as twenty equine fractures a year. However, for every one of these patients, García-López learns of another horse that was put down but possibly could have been saved.

Although fractures can be life-threatening for any animal, García-López said, horses face additional recovery challenges. That is because physiologically horses—unlike dogs or cats—need to be able to bear tremendous weight on all four legs immediately after an injury. Over the past decade or so, veterinary medicine has seen numerous advances that now enable horses to do just that—including the availability of stronger and more stabilizing plates and screws and the use of CT scans during surgery to precisely line up repairs.

Fractures most commonly occur in thoroughbred racehorses, quarter horses performing in western sports, and standardbred harness racers. But an unfortunate misstep can result in a leg fracture for any horse, so García-López urges all owners and veterinarians to be prepared. He said field veterinarians can improve the outlook for horses with leg breaks by immobilizing the injury so it doesn’t get any worse, administering other first aid, and taking X-rays to quickly identify the kind of fracture. Once a horse is stable, its owner and the field veterinarian should consult with an expert in equine-fracture repair.

“It’s important to talk to a surgeon with this expertise for an accurate discussion about what it would take to fix the injury, including the cost, possible complications, and the horse’s prognosis for quality of life and future athletic use,” García-López said. “Some of these injuries can be fixed not just to save a life, but also to send an equine athlete back to its career.”

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