Des Moines Register
Size of horses is detrimental for recovery
Thoroughbreds' temperament is also complicating factor.
When Barbaro pulled up with a shattered ankle in Saturday's Preakness Stakes,
it rekindled one of the most tragic questions in horse racing.
People recover from broken legs, so why is it so hard for horses to survive them?
The answer has to do with the size, circulation and temperament of horses.
Horses' leg bones are denser, but about the same size as humans', even though
thoroughbreds weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Keeping a blood flow to the
injured area to avoid deadly complications is as big of a challenge as the surgery
itself. And sometimes, as in the case of the champion filly Ruffian in 1975, a
frightened horse will become fractious and re-injure the broken leg.
"If you break your tibia and the doctor repairs it, they put you in bed and then
they put you on crutches," said Dr. Scott McClure, assistant professor of large
animal surgery at Iowa State. "We turn around and stand 1,000 pounds back
on a leg a few minutes after surgery.
"Temperament probably contributes to failure 10 to 15 percent of the time. Most
of it is other issues."
While Barbaro's surgery was successful, the Kentucky Derby winner faces
myriad possible complications in the coming months that could claim his life.
A chief danger is foundering, also called laminitis. A congestion of blood can
inflame the inner wall of a horse's hoof and cause the bone to shift and tear
away. It's what killed Secretariat.
"As soon as that leg became unstable from the fracture, the only thing holding it
together is soft tissue," McClure said. "Two arteries run down the back of that
leg. Those arteries are like a piece of wire and start getting all kinks back and
"So those arteries have been stretched, and if they damage those arteries
enough, the blood clots in them. The blood flow to the bottom of your leg is
Jim and Linda Leech of St. Charles, Ia., went through a similar ordeal with
Coding, the champion Iowa-bred 2-year-old filly of 2002.
Coding broke her right front ankle during an August 2003 race. The veterinarians
recommended euthanizing her at the track, but the Leeches instead sent her to
Iowa State in a long-shot effort to save her. Coding got through the surgery but,
after a year of ups and downs and expenses of about $45,000, died of
complications from laminitis.
"We've been talking about it for two days," Jim Leech said. "Having been through
it, we vowed we would never do it again. It sounds very cavalier and noble to do
it, but in point of fact, what you're doing is subjecting the horse to months of pain
and suffering.
"Coding absolutely went through hell. She was on the putdown list five times and
in the hospital eight months. At the end of the day, she died."
Prosthetic hooves and legs are risky since the good leg tends to develop
problems from over- compensating.
In the first 109 runnings of the Preakness, only two horses broke down —
Statesman in 1909 and Alorter in 1944. Since then, Hajji's Treasure in 1985,
Union City in 1993 and Barbaro broke down during the race.
"The two things whether Barbaro recovers or not is first to keep him quiet in the
stall, so he doesn't put too much weight on the bad leg, and second, the
circulation," said Robert McFarlin, a veterinarian at Prairie Meadows. "You can
tell a human to be still. You can put humans in restraints and give it time to heal.
Horses want to move constantly."