Leg prosthetics give horses a chance at normal life

This horse from Kaycee, Wyo., recently underwent leg amputation and is on the road to recovery. Photos courtesy of Sheridan Equine Hospital.

After receiving a severe cut on one of her hind legs, and subsequent laminitis and a bone infection on the other hind foot, the owners of Cheyenne feared the worst for the Buckskin mare who makes her home in Elizabeth, Colo.

But thanks to Wyoming Veterinarian Ted Vlahos, Cheyenne’s infected leg was successfully amputated and fitted with a prosthetic leg. The new leg has allowed the horse to lead a normal life, while giving hope to other horse owners out there who have horses that suffer a similar fate.

Dr. Ted Vlahos of the Sheridan and Cody Equine Hospitals is one of three equine veterinarians who pioneered this technology, which gives horse owners an alternative to putting their horses down.

Vlahos said he considers amputation when other viable options for the horse have been exhausted. “In fracture cases that can not be repaired with traditional plates and screws, or in severe bone or tendon infections, or loss of blood supply to a leg, amputation is a very viable option,” he explained.

During the last 10 years, Vlahos has performed 28 of these surgeries, and emphasizes more people are becoming aware of the technique and interested in it because of very high profile racehorses like Barbaro and Eight Belles.

He has performed the procedure on breeding mares and stallions, but also many pleasure animals and pets. “There are no restrictions on them functioning as breeding or performing animals,” he said. “We have had a couple of the horses ridden by children on the lead line, but we don’t encourage it. We don’t want to rely on these horses to be a riding horse,” he continued. “They need to be a pasture or breeding animal.”

Mares who have had this procedure are still perfectly capable of carrying a foal to term and raising it, Vlahos said. In the Thoroughbred world, if a racehorse has a leg amputated, although it will never race again, it can still produce future racing champions as a breeding animal.

Vlahos published a study in 2005 in the Equine Veterinary Education, stating about 75 percent of horses had a long-term, normal life after amputation, and being fitted with a prosthesis. The surgery can be a cost-effective alternative for many horse owners. “At our clinic, we typically charge about $12,000, which includes the surgery, and about two months of aftercare,” the veterinarian said.

Most of the horses recuperate well from the surgery. “I know of one case in Kentucky that happened 17 years ago, and she is still a successful broodmare,” he said.

The process of performing an amputation involves removing the diseased limb just a couple inches above the unhealthy tissue. “We utilize one of two techniques,” he explained. “We close the stump, but in the cases of the lower leg from the fetlock or lower, we usually place two large pins in the horse’s cannon bone. When we incorporate the pins with a transfixation cast, it allows the horse to fully bear weight on it immediately after surgery, without putting weight on the stump, so that the stump has time to heal.”

Once the stump has healed, which is typically 30-45 days after surgery, Vlahos said they fit the horse with a prosthesis. “We have a human prosthesist manufacture a new leg for us,” Vlahos said. “The leg is typically made of graphite, fiberglass, and titanium. It is extremely durable, and we expect it to last for several years.”

Once the horse has recovered from the amputation, and they have fitted the prosthesis, Vlahos said they monitor its leg for pressure sores and make any adjustments necessary. “After it is fitted with a prosthesis, the horse wears a wool sock that has to be changed every day or every other day, depending upon the weather and how sweaty or wet the sock gets,” Vlahos explained.

“Once the horse figures out the process, it doesn’t take but a few minutes to do, and the horse is usually very cooperative,” he continued. “The prosthesis is enormously user-friendly,” he continued. “We won’t send the horse home until it is an easy thing for the horse owner to manage.”

Equine amputations were first performed about 35 years ago in the United States, and the initial horse who received the amputation was a broodmare. Vlahos said he would like to see the procedure become a more viable option for horse owners, rather than putting the horse down. He feels with more publicity about the procedure, more horse owners will consider it and the procedure will eventually become a common practice.

“We have had thousands of servicemen come home from Iraq with artificial limbs, and we don’t treat them as second rate people,” he said. “We should never underestimate what a horse can do if we give them the opportunity to heal.”

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