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What are Broken Bones?

Time and time again, it’s been said that a horse cannot survive a broken bone. A fracture has long been perceived as a death sentence, or at the least, cause for retirement. However, over the last 20 years, massive gains have been made in the field of equine orthopedics, and many serious injuries are now repairable. Whether a fracture results from an acute accident – such as being kicked by another horse – or is due to ongoing wear and tear associated with high-performance racing, advances in equine orthopedics can potentially return a horse to its former physical potential. Due to better educated veterinarians, highly skilled equine orthopedic surgeons, advances in equipment, anesthesia techniques, surgical centers and recovery facilities, today’s horses have much better chances of healing from a break. At champion horse shows and professional race tracks, first-aid care plays an immeasurably important role in the outcome of an injured horse. Equine ambulances and specially-trained EMTs ensure that the horse is sedated and the fractured limb is immobilized during transport. To save the horse, it is critical that it not sustain further damage to the ends of the bone, the skin, and the surrounding blood vessels. If a horse is forced to walk on the broken limb, or be transported without the proper brace or splint, an initial fracture may be compounded beyond repair. 

While an equine fracture is no longer a certain catastrophe, it is still a challenge. First, the expense of such specialized care is significant. Equine fractures are also more difficult to repair and heal more slowly than human or other animal fractures. One of the biggest challenges associated with treating an equine fracture is the impossibility of keeping the horse’s weight off the fracture during healing. Today, internal fixation (screws and bone plates) enables the horse to stand on a broken leg while it heals, making previously life-threatening fractures treatable. With the best possible care, many fractures heal in under six months, though it takes at least a year for the horse to reach its full potential. During this time, there will be many risks for complications. Bone fragments may pierce the skin, allowing in bacteria that could lead to an infection. Some horses experience anxiety while healing; any falls or frenetic movements may re-injure the horse, or cause an entirely new injury. 

While equine orthopedics is a highly-sophisticated area of veterinary medicine, horse owners are encouraged to learn, and plan for, first-aid care for bone fractures. Having an effective care plan in place, including medication ( an anti-inflammatory and a sedative), splints and bandage material, is the best chance to keep the horse intact until a veterinarian is present.

Orthopedic injuries in horses can be catastrophic; however, gains in equine orthopedics have made many previously life-threatening injuries treatable.

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Symptoms of Broken Bones in Horses

  • Limping or altered gait
  • Altered appearance
  • Swelling
  • Loss of function
  • Pain
  • Tenderness
  • Unwillingness or resistance to exercise


Stress or fracture

This occurs when the bone splits but does not break into separate pieces. A stress fracture is caused by repeated stress that weakens the bone. 

Complete fracture

A simple complete fracture means the bone breaks into two pieces, neither penetrating the skin. When the bone breaks into more than two pieces, the fracture is described as comminuted. These usually occur during intense exercise (racing) or result from a severe accident. 

Compound fracture

This occurs when the broken bone penetrates the skin.


These are a common response to exercise stress. If the horse is allowed recovery time, these tiny fissures in the bone will likely heal. If the bone is subjected to force before the body has had time to mend microfractures, they can multiply, causing the bone to crack or shatter.

Causes of Broken Bones in Horses

  • Serious injury and trauma
  • Racing injuries
  • Over-exercise
  • Wear and tear

Diagnosis of Broken Bones in Horses

Early diagnosis of a fracture is essential. An incomplete fracture in a horse can easily lead to a complete fracture. Diagnosis of fractures is similar in most cases. Most report a loud popping sound or cracking noise when the injury occurs. Immediately, swelling and significant pain occur at the site, along with the inability of the horse to bear weight on the limb. In addition to radiographic confirmation, these factors point to a fracture.

Treatment of Broken Bones in Horses

Surgery is necessary in most cases. The horse is placed under general anesthesia to perform the surgery. Large bones and joints are stabilized and often fused with screws, pins and plates. Some horses are fitted post-surgically with casts, and others with support shoes. Prognosis depends on the age and health of the horse and the extent of breakage. The horse will receive medication for both inflammation and pain.

Recovery of Broken Bones in Horses

All breaks have varying prognoses for recovery. The recovery process is expensive, slow-going, and for some, will require extensive, long-term care. Recovery can take a year in some cases and the healing process will involve a gradual return to activity. Follow up x-rays may be needed on a regular basis in order to monitor the bone and the rate of repair.