'Horses that fracture their legs have to be put to sleep don’t they?' Not an uncommon response from racegoers and the wider public when horses are seen badly injured on the course. Fortunately however, in light of considerable research and investment this could not be more wrong today, but public awareness has unsurprisingly taken a little time to catch up.
At Newmarket Equine Hospital, the largest and most modern equine hospital in Europe, 73 fractures were repaired in 2013 alone. Not only do these horses have an excellent chance of survival, many of them will go on to have successful racing careers even at the highest level; horses that had fractures repaired at Newmarket Equine Hospital have so far won five Group races in 2014.
A study currently being conducted by hospital surgeons Ben Jacklin and Ian Wright has reviewed over 300 fractures of the cannon bone; the most common longbone fracture in racing thoroughbreds. This has shown that 98% of horses that underwent surgical repair survived, and 56% of horses return to racing. The vast majority of those that do not race are able to go on to have successful careers breeding, as competition or leisure horses, or in happy retirement.
Despite these remarkable advances, fracture repair at Newmarket Equine Hospital is constantly being improved. Where necessary, horses now have bones realigned and repaired under the guidance of an arthroscopic camera within joints. This permits perfect re-alignment of joint surfaces to give horses the very best chance of soundness following healing. The hospital has also now installed the UK’s first and only equine intra-operative CT machine, to generate complex 3-Dimensional images of fractures before, during and after reconstruction and repair. This has enabled identification, and precise mapping of complex fractures previously unrecognizable using x-ray alone. The surgical team are confident that by recognizing and treating these additional complexities, outcomes of fracture repair can be improved even further over the years to come.
In addition to the fractures of the cannon bone, fractures of the pastern, knees and hocks, as well as a wide variety of other locations are repaired by the surgeons on a regular basis.
However, it is not only racehorses that are benefiting from this investment in cutting edge technology. Horses and ponies from a wide variety of breeds and disciplines are presenting with orthopaedic complaints and taking advantage of all that Newmarket Equine Hospital can offer. The location of the CT machine within the operating theatre itself means that horses can be scanned as part of the general anaesthetic routine for surgery, and the procedure adds only a matter of 5-10 minutes, thereby avoiding any increase in the length of time horses are under anaesthetic, which in turn reduces the risk to the horse.
Clearly there remain severe and complex fractures which do not yet lend themselves to treatment. Fortunately at Newmarket Equine Hospital however, thanks to field-leading expertise and the very latest in technology, these are forming an ever-decreasing minority.
Ben Jacklin MA VetMB MVetMed MRCVS