With recent advancements in surgical procedures, technology and equipment, leg fractures are no longer inevitably life-ending accidents. However, the initial treatment of a fracture—what you do when you discover your horse wobbling on a broken bone—still dictates what options he may have and how well he may recover, says Colorado veterinarian Amy J. Jergens, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons.
Here, Jergens shares six simple splints that help support a broken bone and the surrounding structures to prevent further damage until you can get to your vet or your vet can come to you.
Editor’s note: If you suspect your horse has broken a bone, call your veterinarian immediately. Also, be sure to note if a bone has punctured through the skin or if the skin is otherwise broken. In such cases, the possibility of infection becomes a major complication.
THERE ARE SIX BASIC SPLINTS that can be used to help support a broken bone—three for the front legs and three for the back legs.
Because horses are flight animals, losing the mobility of a leg causes understandable stress and panic. Although they end up causing more damage by moving, horses tend to continue to “test” a compromised limb, tearing tendons, ligaments and tissue in the process. Therefore, the first step in handling such an emergency is to quietly restrain the horse to prevent more damage.
If possible, enlist the aid of several people to help you hold the horse and apply the splint. The first should slip a halter on the horse and control the animal’s head. As the horse will be in pain and likely panicked, applying a twitch can help restrain and calm him while you apply the splint. If using a lip twitch, the same person holding the horse’s lead can also hold the twitch. If you prefer a neck twitch, or it is the only option available, you need another person to help (see How to Do a Neck Twitch on page 30).
Your goals for splinting a leg are to provide support and prevent further damage. Your veterinarian will reset the leg, so it’s not important to know exactly which bone the horse fractured, but rather approximately where the problem is. For example, if you think your horse fractured his front cannon bone, you want to be sure to splint from the ground to the point of the elbow—above and below the connecting joints. When in doubt, use a longer splint.
The first step in any splint is to bandage the leg, which provides a thick barrier between the wound and the splint, and helps immobilize the leg.
1. The first type of bandage used for a front-end fracture covers from mid-hoof to the knee, and is used when the horse has suffered a lower-leg injury between the pastern and the hoof.
Have a handler gently lift the leg by the forearm. The first layer, the pillow wrap, should be thick—at least a few centimeters once it is applied. The next step is to secure it with Vetrap. The easiest way to roll Vetrap on tightly and with even pressure is to hold it so that the outside of the bandage faces the leg. As you unroll the bandage, you should be able to push the roll away as it wraps around the leg.
Start the layer of Vetrap in the middle of the first bandage, pulling when you cross the front of the leg and gently snugging as you round the back (pulling too tight on the back of the leg can torque the tendons and ligaments in the back). It doesn’t matter if you roll up or down first (or if you roll back to front or front to back), but be sure to leave padding visible at the top and bottom of the bandage.
2. The length of the PVC pipe depends on your horse. The top of the piece should rest slightly below the knee, about where the Vetrap meets the pillow wrap; the bottom should end about at the heel. Using tight, even pressure, secure the pipe at the top and the bottom with duct tape.
3. Cut a second piece of PVC pipe that measures from the back of the knee to the ground. Place this second piece on the back of the leg, and secure with duct tape (you can also apply this splint with one piece on the inside of the leg and one on the outside). Using tight, even pressure, wrap the entire length of the pipe with duct tape, leaving the pillow wrap exposed at the top.
4. If the fracture is higher on the leg, between the knee and the hoof, start with a taller bandage, which covers from the mid-hoof to the top of the forearm.
5. For this splint, apply a piece of PVC pipe that runs from the ground to the point of the elbow. Tightly secure the entire length of the pipe with duct tape, leaving the pillow wrap exposed at the top.
6. For a fracture in the area of the forearm, apply the same bandage and splint as used for a fracture below the knee, but add an additional splint of support running from the ground to about the withers. This side piece is vital to supporting an upper leg fracture, as there is more muscle on the outside of the leg than on the inside, and the natural contraction of these muscles against a broken bone will pull the bone outward, causing more damage.
1. One bandage is used for every splint applied to the hind legs, which extend from mid-hoof to between the top of the gaskin and the base of the stifle.
2. For a lower hind-end fracture, between pastern and the hoof, cut a piece of PVC that extends from the ground to above the point of the hock. With this type of fracture, allowing the horse to cock his leg will allow you to more tightly secure the splint to the back to the leg.
3. For a mid-range fracture, between the pastern and the knee, apply the lower-leg splint with an additional PVC piece that is cut to span from the ground to the hock, or slightly below. This piece will “hinge” at a 90-degree angle to the back piece, cupping the side of the leg, and be secured with duct tape. This photo shows the beginning of taping the piece on, but ideally the duct tape should encase the entire splint.
4. For a fracture above the hock, apply the same bandage and splint as used for a lower hind-end fracture, as well as run a longer splint from the ground up to at least the point of the hip. Secure the long splint with duct tape above and below the hock, as well as down to the ground.
5. While PVC pipe cups the legs better than wood, a plank of wood can also suffice as a splint. Wood can be harder to work with, so you may need to use more duct tape or stronger tape to adequately secure the plank to the leg.
What You Need
• Quilted pads, pillow wraps or cotton sheets
• Bandaging tape, such as Vetrap
• Duct Tape or a similar non-stretch tape
• 4-inch-diameter PVC pipe; cut lengthwise in three equal sections
• Keep your trailer hooked up to a truck (with a full tank of gas) at all times. If this isn’t possible, have someone hook up the trailer as you splint the leg.
• Back the trailer as close as possible to the horse to minimize the distance he has to walk.
• With a front-end fracture, load the horse so that he faces backwards in the trailer, which allows him to balance on his hind end when the trailer brakes.
• In a stock-type trailer, pack the horse in as tight as possible, such as with hay bales, to minimize movement and give him support.
Read more horsemanship articles HERE.
Melissa Cassutt is a past associate editor for Western Horseman. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.