Horse Slaughter/Animal Cruelty

How a Broken Leg Can Spell Death for Horses

By: JO CIAVAGLIA - - May 23, 2006

For most elite sports stars a broken leg is a potential career ending injury, but not a life-threatening one.

So how can an animal that is the athletic equivalent of an Albert Pujols, LeBron James or Tom Brady face such a dire medical diagnosis, even after a successful surgery?

Horses — even a Kentucky Derby winner like Barbaro — do not handle stress well. It can make them so sick it can kill them, say equine experts such as Dr. Dale Schilling, a large animal veterinarian in Ambler.

Here is how:

Horses are extremely sensitive to pain.

After a five-hour surgery like the one Barbaro underwent Sunday after his catastrophic leg injury at Saturday's Preakness Stakes, there is a lot of post-surgery pain, Schilling said. Surgeons set the shattered bones by inserting a metal plate and 23 screws into the 3-year-old colt's right hind leg, repairing damage so severe most horses would not survive it, vets say.

Horses are also creatures of routine. Sudden change in their daily schedule, coupled with severe pain and an uneven weight balance with 1,200 pounds on three legs stresses out the body.

The stress throws their delicate gastrointestinal tract out of whack, Schilling said. If a horse develops diarrhea, serious health problems can arise.

Diarrhea leads to a potentially fatal condition called laminitis, where swelling causes detachment of the connective tissue between the inner hoof wall and the pedal bone, and the bone drops through the bottom of the hoof. If that happens, the horse is in so much pain it has to be euthanized.

Giving the horse pain killers helps lessen the stress, but the medications also can cause side effects, such as diarrhea.

Complicating matters is the fact that this race horse is conditioned to move.

“If you or I had this kind of fracture, they'd tell us to sit in bed for a month. These horses, they want to go and want to move and they're on these thin legs,” Schilling said.

Race horses are more susceptible to this level of injury because of the incredible speed and torque placed on their joints, Schilling said. That is the same reason an injury of this magnitude would also kill most regular riding or jumping horses.

So far, it appears that Barbaro is recovering well from his surgery, spending his first post-op day eating and flirting with mares in the same stall. But doctors give him 50-50 survival odds.

The threat of infection is still there, but because the bone did not break the skin, it greatly improves his chances for a full recovery.

“He's doing all the things a horse should do,” said Dean Richardson, the chief of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center for Large Animals. “While we are optimistic, we remain cautious about his prognosis.”

Doctors say it will take months for the bone to heal.

And if it does, the once undefeated horse won't race again. Instead, he'll take an early retirement to a stud farm.

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