Unless you’ve been incredibly fortunate, the likelihood is that you’ll have seen the moment that a horse falls during a horse race and a decision has to be made about its future.
In some cases, the horse has only suffered a minor injury and is able to stand back up after a short period, trotting away to get treatment off the course. In other cases, however, the horse’s injury is so severe as to mean that it can’t carry on and a decision to euthanise it has to be taken. That is a decision that isn’t reached easily, but it is made in the best interests of the horse.
Whilst horses can suffer injury when taking part in flat racing, there is no question that jump racing is the discipline that most often sees horses get injured in such a manner that they need to be put down. When a horse has a fall, they are seen almost immediately by a veterinarian surgeon, who moves to assess it for any damage. The injuries that a horse can suffer from a fall can range from a bruised bone to a broken one, with many others in between. The seriousness of the injury is obviously the thing that will dictate what happens next.
The Curtain Goes Around
When a horse falls at a racecourse, unless it jumps straight back up again, a curtain is usually erected around it in order to ensure that proper care and attention is offered to it before a decision on its future is made. The curtain also allows for tests to be carried out on the horse out of the glare of the public. There is no question that an injury suffered by a horse doesn’t need to be particularly egregious in order to be serious enough to result in them being euthanised, so vets need to make sure that they carry out plenty of investigations.
The good news is that the curtain being erected doesn’t automatically mean that a horse is going to be put to death. Instead, it is a sign to both the public and to those involved in the racing that something serious has happened. Usually, if a horse is injured enough to mean that it can’t trot off the course of its own volition, the curtain helps indicate to other riders that the fence that the horse fell at will be missed out on the next race. They run around it instead of jumping over it, giving the vets room to work within the confines of the tent.
None Life Threatening Injuries
There are injuries that can be suffered by a horse that are deeply uncomfortable, but which aren’t life threatening. A horse that falls in such a way that they effectively ‘do the splits’, for example, might end up suffering from radial nerve paralysis. This can look like a fracture, with the big difference being that they are able to bear weight with the limb in question. Anti-inflammatory medications can help a horse to recover from radial nerve paralysis within days, whilst more serious cases might end up lasting for months.
A course of anti-inflammatory medications will also be used on a horse that has pulled a groin muscle. Vets need to work hard to assess horses with this injury, owing to the fact that they can look lame and be reluctant to move. Even when the horse does move, their gait may appear to be crooked. Alongside the medication, rest is a crucial part of recovery from this, with a slow re-introduction back to exercising. In the majority of cases, the horse will fully recover, but they will usually need help getting off the course in the first place.
Another less serious injury that a horse can suffer is a contusion or a bruise. They can happen anywhere on a horse’s body and will usually heal up well enough. The likes of cold therapy after the injury will help to stop any swelling, whilst heat therapy further down the line will encourage blood circulation. This is the sort of thing that a vet will move to assess quickly so as to ensure that the right treatment is given. In reality, most horses that only suffer a bruise or a contusion will be up and about relatively quickly after the fall.
Just like humans, a horse that lands awkwardly can end up being winded. If that happens, the diaphragm is likely to spasm as a result of the force being applied to it. If that’s all it is then it is obviously not all that serious, but it can still take a horse between ten and 15 minutes to recover enough to stand up. During this time, a vet will carry out a thorough investigation of the horse’s external anatomy, making sure that nothing more serious has happened. A vet needs to know whether damage is superficial or deep in order to reach a diagnosis.
Horses have 205 bones in their body. Of those, 80 of them are in the legs. Given the fact that racehorses are bred in order to be quick and therefore tend to have light bones, a fall resulting in a break will usually mean that the bone shatters. This is all but impossible to repair, not least because of the complicated physiology of a horse that includes ligaments, cartilage, tendons and joints all working together. A horse that suffers such an injury is likely to be in extreme stress and, sad as it is, euthanasia is the most humane action to take.
Every situation is unique, with a vet needing to carry out sufficient investigation to be satisfied that euthanising the horse is the only option. There are two main methods of euthanasia that will be used on a horse. The first is by administering a lethal injection, which may or may not involve sedation beforehand. The injection usually involves an overdose of an anaesthetic drug, causing a rapid loss of consciousness and then cardiac arrest. The horse is unconscious throughout and will not know what is happening.
The other option open to vets is the use of a free bullet. Whilst injection can only be carried out by a vet, a free bullet can be carried out by a knackerman, hunt kennel or a slaughter man that is licensed to use a firearm. The horse is often sedated before the gun’s muzzle is put against the horse’s head and fired. The horse will lose consciousness immediately and die rapidly. This method of euthanasia can result in a large amount of blood loss, not to mention the sound of a gunshot, so isn’t all that common on racecourses any more.