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Dr. Shari Silverman
broken leg horse on remote island
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Wild stallion with broken leg learns to survive...
As I walked across the open field, taking pictures of semi-feral horses grazing on the island of Vieques off the coast of Puerto Rico, I saw a white stallion standing in the shade of a large hardwood with three full-bellied mares sharing his siesta. As I got closer and took a good look at the stallion, my heart fell. I have spent too many years around horses to not recognize a broken leg, even from a distance. I raised my camera and zoomed in.
Moving quietly and non-threateningly, I approached almost within touching distance and continued to take photos. As I circled the herd, I assessed this horse.
Despite the broken leg and the fact that like most of the mature stallions, his neck was covered with the battle scars that had earned him the right to have his own mares, he was in pretty good condition.
The fracture was above the left knee and bent the leg so far back that it looked more like a hind leg with a hock in place of a knee. I noted that there was not much swelling and I could see that the body had compensated for the deficit as there was significant remodeling of the bone above and below the break. In addition, the front left hoof was half the size of the front right hoof. It takes some time for this kind of atrophy to occur when weight bearing is uneven.
This horse had been living with this injury for quite some time! Perhaps the leg had just healed with the once broken bones fused in this unnatural position.
The stallion stood with half closed eyes, ignoring me. He shifted his weight and rested a hind leg. Horses have the amazing ability to sleep standing up but they will often shift weight and rest one leg at a time – this was normal resting behavior and without waking up in pain, he had switched his weight onto the injured forelimb.
The mares started to grow restless at my encroachment on nap time and they ambled away to graze. At this point, I noticed another stallion, a young unmarked robust chestnut, loitering nearby. As the mares moved closer to him, the white stallion raised his head and fixed his dark eyes on this would-be usurper. The chestnut quickly lowered his gaze and turned away from the mares. With a yawn, the white stallion moved off to follow his ladies. As he took a step, I could see that the broken bones had actually never fused. Instead, as he lifted his left fore off the ground, the angle at the fracture line changed and the lower limb dangled limply as the bones once again separated.
He stopped, stretched out and urinated – this may seem an insignificant detail, but he stretched out! This injury was not inhibiting him from normal behavior – obviously, he had even managed to get his mares bred. When he was done, he turned back toward his little herd and walked briskly after them.
He was mechanically lame – not from physical pain but rather from the physical unevenness of his forelimbs. This was something I could relate to as I have a two inch discrepancy in my legs and walk with a significant limp. Twelve years ago, I was diagnosed with bone cancer in my left hip joint and left side of my pelvis. The cure was a surgical fix – they removed the entire left side of my pelvis and the top of my femur. As so much bone was removed, a hip replacement was not an option and I was left with literally no boney attachment of my left leg to my body. My leg shortened by two inches – without bone above, the remaining femur shifted up into the empty space. I have what is called a “pseudo-socket.” Only soft tissue functions as a hip. At the time of my surgery, I was told I would most likely need crutches the rest of my life or, at best, a cane. I was told to expect a sedentary lifestyle and to give up my pursuit of a career in equine medicine.
Yet here I was, an equine veterinarian, walking through a wildlife preserve with nothing but a camera to assist me. I guess I understood this stallion very well.
We have such preconceptions about what kinds of injuries are survivable and about how we should rehabilitate these animals. Had this horse suffered this injury in captivity, he would likely have been put down. Had his owner decided to try to save him, they would have confined him to a stall where he would have had a very good chance of foundering on his good leg. Although the injury did not heal ideally, he has compensated so well precisely because he was allowed to continue to move while he was recovering.
How do we decide whether a creature should live or die? This stallion would have definitely been given a very poor prognosis for return to activity and even for survival. Good thing no one told him that!
To see more photos of the stallion and other semi-feral horses in Vieques, go to the Simply Sound Horse Facebook page and check out the photo albums.
Shari C. Silverman, VMD, is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School of Medicine, Medical Acupuncture for Veterinarians in Colorado, and has taken and continues to take other courses in veterinary rehabilitation medicine. For information about acupuncture, spinal manipulation or laser therapy, as well as other animal health issues, visit www.SimplySoundHorse.com . Contact Dr. Silverman at 908-963-6904 to schedule an appointment or a consultation.