Horse with a Broken Leg – How Can You Aid in Recovery?

Table of Contents

Horse with a Broken Leg – How Can You Aid in Recovery?

Table of Contents

Horse fractures are something that can occur quickly and unexpectedly. 

A horse lands awkwardly during a training session, putting excessive weight on one leg, causing either a hairline fracture or a more severe compound fracture.   

Another horse missteps due to a hidden hole or on a large stone while playing in the pasture and twists its leg, causing anything from a stress fracture (incomplete fracture) to a complete fracture where the bone is sticking out of the skin. 

A third horse gets free while being transported and loses its footing, colliding with the trailer wall and causing a severe fracture. 

These are just three examples of how equine fractures occur.  However, a fractured limb (regardless of severity) is a critical situation that requires the attention of a veterinarian. 

Horse owners and trainers will often be the first line of assessment and stabilization when dealing with a horse’s broken leg and can also play an important role in the horse’s recovery. So, in this article, we examine common signs, fractures, and what can be done to aid your horse’s recovery from a broken leg. 

Assessment, Stabilization, and Treatment


Common signs of broken legs in horses

As mentioned above, horse owners and trainers are often the first responders when the animal is injured. The care horses receive shortly after the injury can determine how they respond to recovery. 

The first step is to ensure the safety of the horse and the people around the horse.  Next, conduct a visual examination, looking for the following signs:

  • Severe swelling around the fracture site, accompanied by signs of pain in the horse
  • Strange posturing (restlessness, trembling, abnormal stance, and/or lameness)
  • Strange angle of the affected leg, with or without bone fragments sticking through the skin
  • Failure to bear weight on the affected leg or an uneven weight distribution
  • Other signs are rapid breathing, raised heart rate, and decreased appetite

If the visual investigation supports a broken bone or fracture diagnosis, call a vet immediately and stabilize your horse’s injury if it is possible to do so without putting yourself or anyone else at risk. While you wait for the vet, clear the area and collect details of the horse’s medical history and the circumstances surrounding the accident. 

Common fractures in horses and recovery outlook

The type of fracture you are dealing with is indicative of the recovery outcomes for your horse.  The most important goal, even with hairline fractures, is to prevent the horse from causing a more serious injury or break. This will improve the prognosis and determine the measures you can and should take to help your horse recover.

Type of fractureDescriptionDiagnostics and Prognosis
Hairline fracturesSmall cracks or fissures in the bone that are hard to detect.  Mild pain, lameness, and gait might be the only indications. X-rays are the primary method of detection, but if they are inconclusive, a bone scan may be necessary. An ultrasound may be done to rule out problems with the surrounding area.Several weeks will be required for recovery but the prognosis for full healing is good.
Treatment plan: Rest, limited movement, and controlled exercise will be required for several weeks after diagnosis. 
Incomplete fractures (aka greenstick or stress fractures) The bone bends and then cracks.  This is common in younger horses due to their softer, more pliable bones. The good news here is that the bone doesn’t break completely. Early diagnosis is essential to prevent further damage. X-rays are used to determine the extent and location of the break. An ultrasound may be done to investigate injury to the soft tissues around the bone. Full recovery is possible with the right treatment plan.
Treatment plan: Stall rest, immobilization, and in some cases, surgical intervention. 
Simple fracturesA clean break with two separate pieces. Sudden and severe lameness is noticeable. You may or may not see a visible deformity.Call for medical assistance immediately, minimize movement, and keep your horse calm. The vet will conduct a thorough examination, including palpation and possibly flexion tests.X-rays will be taken to confirm the diagnosis. The prognosis is fair to good, depending on the location. Surgical intervention may be necessary, followed by extensive rehabilitation. 
Treatment plan: The affected limb will be immobilized with a splint or cast. Surgical intervention will straighten the bone and stabilize it. Painkillers and anti-inflammatories may be prescribed, in which case you should follow the instructions of the vet closely. Your horse will need physical therapy after the initial recovery to regain strength and mobility.    
Compound fracturesThe broken bone penetrates the skin, posing a high risk of infection.  Your horse will exhibit severe lameness and distress.  There will also be significant swelling around the injury site and there may be bleeding. In severe cases, the horse may show signs of shock, such as shallow breathing, weak pulse, and cold extremities. Do not move the horse unless there is imminent danger. Call a vet immediately and keep your horse calm.  If there is bleeding, apply gentle pressure to the area with a clean cloth.  This is a difficult fracture and therefore, the prognosis depends on the severity of the break. Fracture treatment will be difficult and your horse will require many months of physical rehabilitation.
Treatment plan:  Treatment will include urgent surgery, antibiotics, pain management and prolonged aftercare. Patience will be required while your horse recovers as well as management of your expectations of the horse’s recovery time. An injury like this could take months to heal properly.  Depending on the age of the horse, he/she may not be able to return to former activities. 
Comminuted fracturesThis is when a leg bone shatters into multiple pieces due to an immense blow to the leg or a fall at high speed.  You can expect your horse to have severe lameness, pain, and distress. Signs of shock are common. This type of break requires urgent medical attention. X-rays and an ultrasound may be required to assess the extent of the damage. The prognosis is poor for these breaks due to the complexity and the high risk of infection. 
Treatment plan: Urgent surgical intervention will be required, along with antibiotics, pain management, and a prolonged period of stall rest. The healing process will be long, as your horse will likely require external fixation – the use of pins, wires, and plates on the outside of the leg that is affixed through the skin to the bone.  Your role in the recovery will be aimed at infection prevention by ensuring your horse takes its medication and that infection control measures are applied. 
Sesamoid fracturesFractures in the small sesamoid bones near the fetlock joint.  Noticeable swelling and heat will appear in the fetlock area. Your horse will be reluctant to place weight on the affected area, especially when turning.A fracture in these bones can lead to significant complications and affect the horse’s overall limb function. The objective is to keep the horse as still as possible to avoid further injury and to apply cold therapy to reduce inflammation and swelling. An X-ray will confirm the initial assessment and the fracture’s severity. The prognosis for recovery is good. 
Treatment plan:  Stall rest for a short period, along with anti-inflammatories, are common treatment options.  If this does not work, surgery may be needed. 

Complications following a broken leg


The recovery of your horse from a fracture can be complicated by several factors. Support for your horse during recovery will focus on avoiding these complications.

Poor Blood Supply: Some areas of the leg, especially lower down near the hoof, have a limited blood supply, which can impede healing. A promising development has emerged from the study of carnosine in mice with ischemic limbs [1].  This is a naturally occurring compound in the body of humans and animals such as horses and provides a natural anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and vasoconstrictor.  

The application of a carnosine-based gel to injured limbs and soft tissue around an injury, improved blood flow recovery and enhanced revascularization and regeneration of myocytes. Using this gel during your horse’s recovery can help ease discomfort as it eases inflammation and assists in increasing blood flow. 

Muscle Atrophy and Stiffness: Prolonged immobilization can lead to muscle atrophy and joint stiffness, complicating the horse’s return to full mobility. Helping your horse recover from this faster is dependent on muscle and joint health.  

Apply a carnosine-based gel to the injury site for accelerated recovery.  This will protect your horse’s muscles and joints from atrophy and enable them to start exercising with increased strength as soon as they are cleared to do this. 

Psychological Stress: Confinement and pain can lead to stress, which can affect the horse’s overall health and well-being.  The way to prevent psychological stress is to keep your horse as calm as possible. Try to be positive in your interaction with your horse and also maintain a good care routine so that your horse can recover from the injury with your help. 

Complications from Surgery: If surgical intervention is required, there are inherent risks associated with anesthesia and the surgery itself.  Follow the instructions given by the vet meticulously and don’t hesitate to contact the vet if you spot visible signs of infection and/or distress post-surgery. 

How long will it take for your horse to recover?


Even with the best possible care, it’s important to be realistic about your horse’s recovery time.  It will take anything from six months to a year for broken leg injuries to fully heal and your horse to return to their former activity level. 

Are there circumstances in which a horse with a broken leg has to be euthanized?

One element of horse behavior that counts against recovery is that a horse cannot lie down for long periods.  Most of a horse’s weight is concentrated in the back area; therefore, any injury to the supporting structures (the legs) will cause difficulty for the horse.  

Previously, life-threatening fractures necessitated a horse to be euthanized.  However, today internal fixation using screws and bone plates, permitting the horse to stand while the bones heal, has given new hope for bone breaks in horses. 

Multiple injuries and leg bone breaks from a severe accident could become a reason for euthanization, in which case an anesthetic injection will gradually put the horse to sleep.  

Can you do anything to prevent a broken bone in your horse?

The saying goes: “Prevention is better than cure”.  This is also true when it comes to your horse.  Maintaining healthy legs is something all horse owners and trainers should be concerned with.  This, however involves a multi-prong approach as follows:

  • Feed your horse a balanced diet, providing nutrients that encourage strong bones.
  • Prevent over-exercising your horse, and make time for adequate resting periods.
  • Attend to changes in your horse’s gait quickly, ensuring that minor fractures do not turn into something more serious.
  • Keep the pasture area clear of obstacles and fill in deep holes.
  • Ensure your horse is secure before transportation.
  • Use a carnosine-based gel that will improve the health of your horse’s tendon’s ligaments and joints.  It also has the added benefit of accelerating muscle recovery and shortening downtime. 

You are an important part of your horse’s recovery

In this article, we have examined the common signs of a broken leg in your horse, the different types of fractures, as well as their prognosis and treatment plans you can follow.  We have also looked at how you can prevent complications from broken bones and given you a list of preventative measures that will help you to keep your horse healthy and happy. 

Remember, your role in this journey is pivotal. From the initial response to an injury to ensuring immediate veterinary care to the long days of rehabilitation, your support, care, and attention can make a significant difference in your horse’s recovery. The bond you share with your horse will be a source of comfort and strength for both of you during this time.