Do They Still Shoot Horses?

When I was growing up in the 1960’s I was told that if a horse breaks its leg it always had to be destroyed, not necessarily by shooting it, but in a more humane manner. The reason, I remember being told, is that a horse is so top heavy it can’t possible support its entire weight on only three legs.

It didn’t matter whether the horse was a prized race horse or a trail horse, or how much money you were willing to spend, you just couldn’t immobilize a horse long enough to allow a major bone to heal properly, and a cast on a leg, for some reason, just wasn’t practical. Really? Was this ever true, and is it still the case?

Has veterinary medicine advanced to a point where if someone is wealthy enough they can rehabilitate a horse that breaks a leg, or do they still routinely destroy horses with broken legs? I can imagine some kind of pulley support system to immobilize the animal, but I’m not sure a horse would put up with it for 3 months…

In short, yes, they do still euthanize horses for fractures. But, there is a broad spectrum of types and severity of fractures, and veterinary medicine is slowly advancing down that spectrum such that more and more fractures are survivable.

What is key is whether the blood supply to the foot has been severed in the fracture. There is no hope if it has. Eight Belles, second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, was immediately euthanized as she broke both legs after passing under the wire. She broke one leg, then the other as she scrambled trying to balance herself.

Meanwhile, Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner, suffered a fracture to a hind leg in that year’s Preakness Stakes. That injury was survivable in that surgery repaired the fracture, and keeping him in a sling helped the healing process. His attitude was key; had he been aggressive or depressed, the repair would not have been successful. This was the undoing of my screennamesake–Ruffian awoke from surgery, panicked, thrashed about, and ruined her fragile leg. There was no saving her then.

The problem, though, was laminitis. A horse is designed to have its weight divided by four, not by three, on its delicate legs. An imbalance of weight causes the coffin bone–the bone in the hoof–to rotate and begin to slide down, sometimes coming out the bottom of the sole. It is excruciatingly painful and without a cure, and was Secretariat’s final downfall. Unfortunately for Barbaro, while his fractured leg healed, and despite all efforts to prevent it, laminitis set in and he was euthanized about 8 months after his initial injury.

Here’s the Wiki on Barbaro, and here is the one on Eight Belles.

And can anyone explain why we “destroy” horses and not “kill” them? “Destroy” seems much more graphic to me.

Perhaps “destroy” was a poor choice of words. Euthanize is probably a better word to use under the circumstances. I believe it’s done with essentially a drug overdose, although I could be wrong about that.

Given the improvements in artificial limbs - remember the cat with the artificial leg - is it now feasible to amputate instead? Obviously a horse with a prosthetic couldn’t race, but might still breed.

Too much weight on too small a limb. This is why leg injuries to a horse are so devastating.

Even prostheses for humans wear out in a few years.

Given the nature of horses as flight animals, I can’t imagine them adapting to an artificial leg… although I suppose anything’s possible.

What if all four legs are amputated? Then you could fit the horse with a prosthetic wagon cart to roll around on.

Then you could only race the horse at a drag strip.

from the famous Missing Missy satire:

Prosthetics are not unheard of in horses, but are exceptionally rare. There is a pony rescued from Hurricane Katrina that famously wears a prosthetic, but again, the problem is a) laminitis and b) temperment. A horse must learn to put their weight on a prosthetic, or risk laminitis–which can set in incredibly quickly (overnight is not unheard of).

Smaller horses, such as the famed Katrina pony or miniatures, would fare better, both in recovering from laminitis and in wearing a prosthesis. I had a mini who had a severe case of laminitis–her coffin bone rotated more than 14 degrees, where more than 10 degrees is fatal in her larger cousins–and she recovered to the point you would never know she had such a severe condition. BTW, her case was caused by dietary issues, not injury, but that’s another topic unrelated to the OP.

Additionally, I would assume a horse must be more laid back and mellow to avoid destroying the prosthetic (some horses routinely destroy their buckets, hay nets, blankets, fly masks, etc.)–and thoroughbred race horses, particularly stallions, are far from “mellow and laid back.”

That said, I do remember seeing a piece back in the 80s about a stallion with a hind leg prosthesis. I don’t recall anything further about it, such as the name of the horse or whether his breeding career continued.

There are a few cases of horses who have had lower leg amputations with prostheses used, but it is a tremendous amount of weight on a small area, making pressure sores more likely than in other species, and it is also quite a commitment of time and money to make the custom prosthesis, fit/modify it for the horse, and then change the padding and maintain the health of the stump. IOW, it’s possible in some situations, but not feasible for most owners. They also have to not founder while the stump is healing and they’re standing on 3 legs.

Repair of fractures depend in large part on what was fractured and how badly, the size and temperament of the horse - bigger horses put more strain on implants and casts and are more likely to founder than ponies - and the time and financial commitment of the owner. Costs can be in the hundreds of dollars for several sets of radiographs and cast changes to $10K++ for complex cases requiring multiple surgeries, long hospitalization, time in a sling, etc., and people are more hesitant to spend money if the prognosis is uncertain or if the horse is not going to be a riding horse anymore. As mentioned above, regardless of the type of fracture, the horse has to strike a balance between resting the leg enough to allow the fracture to heal and not developing laminitis in the other legs, which is not always easy or possible.

There are a number of fractures that are routinely repaired. Racehorses are prone to condylar fractures, in which there is a diagonal split in one side of the cannon bone; these are relatively easily repaired with a few screws. They are also prone to so-called slab fractures, in which a carpal (“knee”, really like our wrist) bone splits in two. Slab fractures may resolve with just stall rest and time, or they may be surgically repaired - arthritis may develop in the joint, preventing future racing, but the horse’s life is rarely in immediate danger. If a horse fractures its coffin bone (the distal phalanx, inside the hoof), a special shoe can be applied which helps make the hoof more rigid; the hoof acts as a natural cast, and the prognosis is excellent unless the fracture affects the joint.

At the other end of spectrum from these routine fractures, grossly displaced fractures of the large bones of the upper leg, such as the femur, are much harder to treat, and implant failure is common in those that are treated. Most people choose to euthanize horses with displaced fractures of the long bones above the carpus and tarsus, although hairline fractures can sometimes be managed by stall rest, preventing the horse from lying down, and a good dose of prayer that it doesn’t come apart catastrophically.

In general, if a fracture disrupts the cartilage bed in a joint, the prognosis for full function is poorer and arthritis more likely. In some cases, the joint can actually be surgically fused - the cartilage removed and plates implanted across either side of the joint to encourage the two bones to fuse together - as part of repairing a fracture, but this doesn’t always work, and if you manage to fuse a high motion joint, the horse will always move with a significant gimp (and hence be a pasture ornament, not a riding horse).

Huh. Whodda thunk it?:

It seems you’ve already got your answer, but I’d like to share this video anyway because I like it, and you can see how well this prosthetic leg works for this horse. :]

I love the Dope!

There’s a a Captive-Bolt Gun.

A bolt gun has a steel rod that pieces the skull and into the brain. Often used to humanely put down horses and other animals.

Shooting IS a humane method.

A shot with a large-caliber gun to the head will kill the horse immediately, with the brain & consciousness destroyed instantaneously. The animal is dead even before it falls to the ground. About as quick and painless as possible. But not as painless for the human owner to see.

The drugs used to put horses down take longer, and occasionally don’t work as expected. But they are easier to watch.

I apologize for being only mostly coherent in my post above.

I also want to point out that, besides advances in implant technology and medical knowledge about fractures, anesthesia has also progressed since the olden days. Unlike a person who will be in bed during recovery from anesthesia and on crutches afterward, the horse stands up using the injured leg as soon as they’re awake. You also can’t explain to them what is going on and even I, a consenting human, was somewhat confused and panicky waking up from my last surgery. If they panic and start scrambling or kicking while still ataxic from the drugs, it puts that much more stress on their legs, and even relatively healthy horses occasionally fracture a leg in recovery. Advances in drugs, intraoperative monitoring, and recovery techniques (e.g. use of slings and pools) have decreased peri-operative mortality and made pinning a horse’s leg back together less scary than it used to be.

Regarding euthanasia, the above posters are right. A properly placed gunshot or captive bolt to the brain is considered by the AVMA to be a humane method of euthanasia, and there are plenty of instances when this may be preferable - lack of a vet around, desire to leave the carcass for the vultures or feed it to other animals, needle-shy horse, drug shortages, owner preference, etc.

Horses can’t fly.