If you suspect your horse has a fracture, call your primary care veterinarian immediately. While waiting for your veterinarian, it is best to attempt to keep your horse as quiet and calm as possible. Your veterinarian may take radiographs in the field (depending on the suspected fracture location) and then place a bandage with a splint or a cast. Many types of fractures in horses can be repaired; however, some cannot. Once appropriate first aid is given ask your veterinarian to consult an ACVS board-certified veterinary surgeon to determine if your horse’s fracture can be repaired and what additional measures need to be taken.
- Not bearing any weight on the limb or extreme lameness (i.e. toe-touching, hopping, or dragging the limb)
- Signs of shock: Sweating, anxiousness, elevated heart rate (normal heart rate for horses is 48 beats per minute or less)
- +/- Abnormal contour, angle, or shape of the limb (Figure 1)
- +/- Swelling around the area that is fractured (not always evident; Figure 1 and 2)
- +/- Bleeding if there is an associated laceration (if the fracture is open, Figure 2)
If you suspect your horse has a fracture, call your veterinarian immediately. They can give you specific instructions on what to do until they arrive. Upon arrival, they may diagnose the fracture on physical exam, or they may need to take radiographs. In some instances if a fracture is suspected but cannot be found at your farm, your veterinarian may recommend you take your horse to a referral center for advanced diagnostics such as digital radiographs, ultrasound, or nuclear scintigraphy (“bone scan”).
Once the fracture has been temporarily stabilized and the bone that is fractured is diagnosed, the next step is to consider the options for treatment and determine whether your horse is a candidate for fracture repair. The main factors that should be considered are:
- Location of the fracture
- Size of the horse
- Open vs. closed fracture
- Severity of the fracture
- Condition and temperament of the horse
- Cost of treatment
- Expectations for outcome (i.e. return to full use vs. pasture sound)
Small horses or foals (less than 700 lbs) with closed, simple fractures have the best overall chance for survival. Large horses with highly fragmented open fractures or fractures of the upper limb have a poor prognosis for survival. Horses that have lost blood supply to the limb should be humanely euthanized. Fracture repair in horses is extremely challenging and should only be attempted by an experienced ACVS board-certified veterinary surgeon in an appropriately equipped facility. There are numerous factors specific to each type of fracture and each individual horse.