Six Splinting Techniques
That Can Save Your Horse’s Life
A broken leg is one of a horse owner’s worst nightmares, and quick thinking and immediate splinting are key to your horse’s survival and recovery. Though not apparent, the main goal of splinting is to protect soft tissues adjacent to the break.
Editor’s Note: Last month, an article on splinting techniques (“Splint Up”), ran in our Western Horsemanship section. After the issue had printed, our source, Amy J. Jergens, DVM, DACVS, asked for the opportunity to offer clarifications and alternate strategies in a follow-up article. Here, you’ll find more information to help you splint a fracture.
FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD Annalyssa Campbell and her sorrel Quarter Horse gelding, T-Bar, had just clocked their best barrel time yet.
It was the Sunday of the Casper High School rodeo, the second day of the event. Their next event was pole bending, and with a small arena, they’d need to get a running start to make a fast time. As they turned the corner to enter the arena, something popped.
“I had never been on a horse that had gone dead lame while I was running him,” Campbell says. “Everybody was yelling, but I couldn’t tell what they were saying.”
T-Bar ran through half the pattern before she was able to pull him up.
Looking back, they figure T-Bar’s hoof planted as he went into the turn, twisting and fracturing his short pastern as he entered the arena.
Campbell immediately dismounted, and T-Bar was loaded into her trailer and driven two blocks to Wyoming veterinarian George Marble. Marble splinted the horse and referred T-Bar to Countryside Large Animal Veterinary Clinic in Greeley, Colorado, for surgery.
T-Bar underwent surgery the next morning. Now, a year later, he can be seen racing around the pasture, kicking and bucking—almost as though nothing ever happened. Though he still has a few scars and he’ll never compete again, the alternative could have ended his life.
The biggest concern after such a fracture is splinting the horse’s leg, says veterinarian Amy J. Jergens, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons. Jergens, the surgeon who worked on T-Bar, says this injury—a short pastern fracture—is the most common seen in Western performance horses.
With recent advancements in surgical technique and implant design, leg fractures are no longer inevitably life-ending accidents. However, Jergens says the initial treatment of a fracture—what you do the moment you discover your horse has a broken bone—still dictates what options he may have and how well he may recover.
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.
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.
WHEN A FRACTURE OCCURS, a horse loses the ability to use its leg. This triggers the horse’s flight response and results in more damage to the leg, as they will continue to “test” the leg and damage the soft tissues (tendons, ligaments and blood supply) in the process. The best way to protect these soft tissues is to quietly restrain the horse and splint the limb to prevent further damage.
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 you never know when you may need to splint a fractured leg, it’s important to have supplies on hand so that you can handle an emergency quickly and efficiently (see sidebar “What You Need”). Storing these supplies in your trailer ensures they’re always available, even when you’re away from home.
Your goals for splinting a leg are to provide support and prevent further damage. 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 joint above to the joint below the fractured bone, otherwise the leg will bend at the fracture site. When in doubt, use a longer splint.
The first step in applying any splint is to wrap the leg with a light bandage, which provides a barrier between the fracture and the splint, and helps immobilize the leg. Bandage padding should be about half an inch thick once it is compressed with the bandaging tape. Padding that is too thick will get crushed and allow excessive movement inside the splint, which can be worse than no splint at all. Too little padding, however, will cut off the blood supply to the leg.
If a horse fractures a limb during competition, dismount and hold the leg up until help arrives.
Your vet will radiograph the leg with your splint in place, and will reset the splint if any changes need to be made.
1. When the horse has suffered a lower-leg injury between the ankle and the hoof, the first step is to apply a light bandage that covers from mid-hoof to the knee.
Have a handler gently lift the leg by the forearm above the knee, allowing the leg to dangle. Once you have applied the padding (which should not be more than an inch thick), the next step is to secure it with bandaging tape (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 about an inch of the first layer of padding visible at the top and bottom of the bandage.
2. How long the PVC pipe should be depends on your horse. The top of the piece should rest at the top of the cannon bone, about where the Vetrap meets the pillow wrap; the bottom should end at the toe. For this splint, the limb is placed up on the toe, which aligns the bony column of the digit. This alignment isn’t necessary for fractures farther up the limb that don’t involve the digit.
Secure the pipe at the top and the bottom with duct tape, snugging the tape as tight as possible.
3. From here, secure the PVC pipe to the leg with duct tape (remembering to pull as tight as possible), covering the entire length of the splint, leaving padding exposed at the top.
4. If the fracture is higher on the leg, between the knee and the ankle, start with a stacked bandage, which covers from 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. For a fracture in this area, you need to apply a second piece of PVC pipe, the same length as the first (measuring from the ground to the elbow), placed on the outside of the leg. This second piece should “hinge” at a 90-degree angle to the back piece (attached in the same area as the outside PVC piece in the following picture). Tightly secure both pieces to the leg with duct tape, covering the entire length of the PVC splints with tape.
6. For a fracture in the area of the forearm, apply the same bandage as used for a fracture below the knee. Apply a piece of PVC that runs from the ground to the point of the elbow. Then, apply a second piece of PVC that runs from the ground to the withers. This piece is vital to supporting an upper leg fracture, as there is more muscle on the outside of the leg than on the inside. The natural contraction of these muscles will pull the fractured bone inward, causing more damage.
1. A stacked bandage, consisting of a bandage from mid-hoof to the hock and one from the hock to the stifle, is used for every splint applied to the hind leg. The bandage from the hock to the stifle will likely slide down to the gaskin (as seen here), but it is best to apply the bandage to the level of the stifle when initially wrapping the leg.
2. For a lower hind-end fracture, between ankle and the hoof, use a piece of PVC that extends from the toe to the point of the hock. Have a handler hold the wounded limb above the hock, gently pulling the leg back to allow the limb to dangle. Tightly secure the pipe to the back of the leg, covering the entire length of the PVC with duct tape.
3. For a mid-range fracture, between the ankle and the hock, apply a lower-leg splint on the back of the leg from the ground to the hock. Next, place an additional PVC piece that is cut to span from the ground to the hock. This piece will “hinge” at a 90-degree angle to the back piece, cupping the outside of the leg, and be tightly secured with duct tape.
4. For a fracture between the stifle and hock, apply a splint that runs from the ground up to at least the point of the hip. Tightly secure this 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 does wood, a plank of wood, ideally 10 feet long and six to eight inches wide, 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.
AMY J. JERGENS, DVM, DACVS, received her doctorate of veterinary medicine from the University of Illinois. She worked at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, for two years following graduation. She completed her residency training in equine surgery at Peterson and Smith Equine Hospital in Ocala, Florida, after which she became an assistant clinical professor in large animal surgery at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. Jergens is currently staff surgeon at Countryside Large Animal Veterinary Service in Greeley, Colorado. Her areas of focus include large animal surgery (emergency and elective), lameness, ultrasound and sports medicine. She also lectures to the horse community on topics that include colic, first aid, foal care, sports medicine and orthopedics.Learn more about Countryside Large Animal Veterinary Service on the Web at csidevet.com.
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Melissa Cassutt is a past associate editor for Western Horseman. Send comments on this story to email@example.com.