We see it in our practice quite often. A horse gets a leg trapped and struggles for release. He may get out on his own or, if lucky, may be found soon and released. If he pulls and jerks long enough the damage that is done may be irreparable and the horse will have to be put down. Let’s examine what happens in these cases and how to prevent this tragedy happening to one of your animals.
First, we have to remind ourselves that horses are a prey animal. For thousands of years, like other herbivores, they have been the hunted.. Locked deep in their hard wiring is a fear of being trapped. Being trapped is actually quite rare in the wild. Conceivably a leg might slip down between two heavy stones, or the whole horse might get caught in quick sand or the muck of a deep marsh. They will struggle for release, and if they can’t get out will die there.
Entrapment is much more common for the domestic horse because of our own construction efforts to “keep them safe.” You probably know of at least one horse that has gotten all wound up and hopelessly caught in fencing.
I’ll never forget two that reared up in their stalls and in striking out punched a foot between iron bars. In one case it was the bars on a door and in the other the bars on a stall door window. Both of these horses ended up literally hanging by one leg because the foot is wider than the pastern. Both made enough racket to alert the stable owners. The horse caught in the window bars was released by the town of Gray fire department. The bars were so strong they couldn’t pry them apart and had to spread the bars with their jaws of life. This is the hydraulic apparatus used to pry apart auto wrecks to release those inside. The horse caught in the bars of the door had to put under anesthesia for 30 minutes so that the door could be removed and the bars spread with two long iron pry bars. These two horses were OK because they were found in time. Some aren’t so lucky.
Just this winter I was called to come help release a horse that was caught in one of those big cattle pipe hay feeders. The feeder was round, probably ten feet in diameter. The successive storms we had this winter kept piling snow deeper and deeper around it. Horse traffic around the feeder turned the snow into ice. A young stud slipped and got. . his leg got caught between the feeder and the ice. When the family’s kids found the horse no one was sure how long he had been lying there. By the time I arrived the horse had been been freed by the owner’s husband who used a sawsall to cut the pipe of the feeder.. I checked the horse’s legs, and all I could see was just some skin scrapes on the leg. He actually walked and trotted sound. However, within a week he went lame and we finally had to put him down because all of the tissue around the area that was trapped had started to slough away. He probalby struggled quite a bit when he was first trapped and did a huge amount of damage to the soft tissues of the leg .
Probably the most common place that I see horses get trapped is when they get a leg caught under a stall door. Whether you have a sliding or a swinging stall door, you should always have a latch a few inches up from the floor. Horses that go down from a colic and kick out a hind leg that is near the door can pop theat leg under door out for a split second and then the door springs back, trapping them. Get them out quick enough and they are usually OK. If they are caught for any length of time the damage that is done to the leg when they struggle may not be fixable. It does take an extra few seconds to secure a bottom latch as well as regular one, but it might save a life some day.
I’m remembering another horse that in winter slid off of an icey ramp that ran from the barn down to the ground. One of the legs got caught under the ramp and fractured when the animal struggled to get up.
Try to make your place as safe as you can. Bars should be placed so that a horse kicking out can’t separate them enough to get their foot caught. I’ve also seen a couple of jaw fractures from young horses that put their head sideways and stick the jaw through the bars. When they turn the head straight up and down they get caught and usually panic. It probably doesn’t need saying, but barb wire and horses don’t mix. Its bad enough for a horse to be wrestling with a wire fence wound around him, and pretty horrible when its barbed.
Being the prey animal that they are, horse when initially caught can do lots of damage to themselves in trying to get free. Minimize those situations by checking around your place and thinking: “If I were a horse…..”
–David A. Jefferson, DVM