Last week, Mussoorie BJP MLA Ganesh Joshi was accused of charging at 14-year-old Kathiawari mare Shaktiman with a stick during a protest in Dehradun. Shaktiman, a member of the Dehradun Police’s mounted unit, ended up with a fracture in one of her hind legs, which was later amputated. She now has an artificial limb. As Shaktiman remains under watch, here is why a broken leg often is a death knell for horses.
What are the normal causes of horse injuries?
While one often hears of race horses getting injured on the tracks, even ordinary riding horses and ponies can injure themselves easily. Fatigue, weak bones, a small slip or misplaced hoof can result in grievous injuries and a broken leg. Strained tendons and hairline fractures can also lead to broken bones. The biggest problem here is that unlike humans, in majority of the cases, a horse cannot recover from its injuries, forcing vets to opt for euthanasia.
Why is a leg injury so lethal for a horse?
A broken horse leg is not the same as a fractured human leg, and it all comes down to its bone structure. A horse’s bones are much lighter. So while they must be strong enough to carry the animal’s weight, they have to be light for them to be able to go fast. When they break, veterinarians say, they can often just shatter.
* A horse’s speed can be attributed to the complex arrangement of the 80 bones in its legs, along with the ligaments, tendons, cartilage, lubricant, laminate and hooves. Even a small displacement in any of the structures can result in fractures. Once hurt, the different parts don’t heal together, making recovery slow. 65 per cent of a horse’s weight rests on its front legs, leading to maximum injuries in these parts.
* There is no muscle or soft tissue below the knee or near its hooves, so even in a cast, there is little to support the broken bone, apart from tendons and ligaments.
* The bone of a horse bends before it breaks, and often tears through its skin. This results in what the vets call “plastic deformation” or an open fracture.
* A fibrous tissue called ‘laminae’ is what attaches the horse’s hoof to its leg. When one of the legs is broken, the weight (almost 500 kg) is transferred to the remaining three legs, resulting in extra pressure and inflammation of the laminae and leading to a condition called ‘laminitis’. Painkillers are often used by vets to relieve the horse for a short while, but eventually, the animal will fail to move.
What are the options for such an injured horse?
Amputation: Majority of vets agree amputation affects the quality of life of the animal. Synthetic materials are used in humans to replace a broken bone, but in horses they can only help in case of a simple fracture, not when the bone is completely shattered. Also, for the leg to recover, the weight needs to be taken off it, but that is difficult considering horses rarely lie down. Horses sleep standing — their bones and ligaments lock down, allowing the animal to relax. Besides, a horse would never understand the nature of its injury and would want to move around, thus re-injuring itself.
Sling: A sling can help take away the weight from the damaged leg, but there are issues here too. The horse needs to keep the sling on for weeks at length, and this may result in sores, because of the constant rubbing with the skin and may even compress the intestinal tract. Again, it is very difficult to ensure that the horse keeps the sling on for days, making recovery almost impossible in serious injuries. Even if a horse is made to lie down for a long period, it can lead to accumulation of fluids in the lungs and result in pneumonia.
Is recovery possible?
* There are many factors that determine the extent of recovery in a horse. If the horse is young, he is usually lighter, and can recover faster from its injuries. Recuperation is tougher if there is an injury below the knee, where there are fewer blood vessels. In other parts, the healing may be faster. Lastly, if it’s a single, clean fracture, treatment might work in comparison to completely shattered bones.
* According to The Guardian, which quotes British Horseracing Authority (BHA) figures, there has been a decline in equine fatalities in the past 15 years. Tim Morris, director of equine science and welfare at BHA, attributes it to “better anaesthetics, better pain relief, better technology to hoist horses, stronger implants, better understanding of bone biology and how it heals, better diagnosis…” for this, in the paper.