First Aid for Limb Fractures in Horses

When a horse's leg is fractured, the primary treatment goal is to stabilize the fracture site so the broken bone ends don't further separate and do more damage. The outcomes of these cases often have a great deal to do with how well the broken leg was stabilized in the field before a surgeon ever saw the horse. At the 2007 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 1-5 in Orlando, Fla., John Janicek, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, of Weems and Stephens Equine Hospital in Aubrey, Texas, presented a review of field stabilization techniques for limb fractures in various parts of the leg.


horse limb stabilization cast

An example of splinting a horse's lower limb.

Following patient evaluation and stabilization, fracture stabilization generally consists of a splint applied over a uniformly layered bandage; the splint could be made of PVC pipe, wood boards or tool handles, metal rods, or casting material--anything lightweight and rigid.

"The general rule of thumb is to immobilize the joint above and below the fracture," explained Janicek. "Avoid splinting up to the same level of the fracture, because that will create a fulcrum action that can result in further displacement. Most of these materials are lying around the clinic already, so bring them to ambulatory calls with possible fractures."

He divides forelimbs and hind limbs into four sections when describing how to stabilize them:

  • Section 1 (forelimbs and hind limbs): Fractures of the fetlock or lower regions. Splints run up to just below the knee or hock.
  • Section 2 (forelimb): Fractures from the top of the knee to just above the fetlock. Caudal and lateral splints (on the rear and outside of the leg) run up to the elbow.
  • Section 2 (hind limb): Fractures of the hind cannon bone. A caudal splint runs up to the point of the hock, while a lateral splint runs up to the level of the stifle.
  • Section 3 (forelimb): Fractures between the knee and elbow. A caudal splint runs up to the elbow, while a lateral splint lying against the shoulder helps prevent abduction of the limb (pulling it away from the body's midline).
  • Section 3 (hind limb): Fractures from just below the stifle joint to the bottom of the hock. A lateral splint running up past the pelvis helps prevent abduction.
  • Section 4 (forelimb): Fractures from the elbow upward. A caudal splint helps lock the knee in extension, which is often tough for these cases to do. The injury is not splinted as it has extensive muscle coverage that provides stabilization.
  • Section 4 (hind limb): Fractures from the stifle joint upward. These injuries are not splinted as they have extensive muscle coverage that provides stabilization.

"In most cases, patient and limb stabilization followed by consultation with the nearest surgical facility provides the best service to the horse and the client," noted Janicek. When transporting the horse for surgery, he recommended the following:

  • The trailer should be brought as close to the horse as possible to minimize movement.
  • Chest and butt bars should be used in the trailer to stabilize the horse.
  • The horse's head should be left untied to improve balance.
  •  Provide hay to keep him busy.

Haul horses with forelimb fractures facing backward, and hindlimb cases facing forward as it's harder for horses to balance during braking than during acceleration.

About the Author

Christy M. West

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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