It’s a decision every horse owner dreads. What to do when a beloved and often valuable animal suffers a catastrophic leg injury. For most horses, euthanasia is often the only option on the table. But with the advances made in veterinary medicine, some owners and their horses are given a second chance through the use of prosthetics.
In Cody, Wyoming, Dr. Ted Vlahos is considered a world-renowned expert in equine amputation and prosthetics. Working out of the Yellowstone Equine Hospital that he founded in 2016, Dr. Vlahos performs surgeries around the world and is considered a leader in the development of amputation procedures and prosthetic limbs for severely injured horses.
One of his recent patients is the Quarter Horse Triple Vodka, a breeding stallion whose coffin joint turned septic. Despite the best of care it was not improving, so his owners had to decide the next step. After consulting with Vlahos, it was determined that the horse was a viable candidate. As featured in the Paulick Report , Triple Vodka’s leg was amputated below the fetlock.
“In the case of the distal limb, we preserve the sesamoid bones so we have a bulbous end,” Vlahos says in the article. “We also don’t want horses to walk on raw nerve endings on that stump, so we perform a neurectomy removing about three inches of nerve so they can’t feel the stump. We also perform a tendon flap procedure, creating a thick pad of tendon at the end of the bone that is then covered with skin.”
Because horses have to weight-bear immediately, Vlahos inserts pins into the leg that is attached to what is called a “transfixation cast” that ensures that the horse’s weight transfers to the pins and not the stump. At the two-three week mark the stump is examined and if it is determined to be healing properly, the pins are removed after a further two weeks. The process of creating a prosthetic – made from carbon fibre – involves several fittings to ensure success.
According to the Yellowstone Equine Hospital website there are certain factors that determine if a horse can lead a normal life with a prosthetic limb, and a big one comes down to owner commitment. “Daily maintenance is minimal… [but] the equine amputee requires a lifetime commitment from its owner.”
Another factor is temperament and also the fact that the horse has to be handled frequently, so, a horse that lives a more feral lifestyle, or is high energy or nervous, may make it an unlikely candidate.
The health of the opposite leg must also be considered. Severe laminitis in such a support leg is “less than ideal.” But the hospital reports success in cases of horses with mild support laminitis that recovered after the sore leg was removed.
Dr. Vlahos has meetings with the owner and his or her vet to go over each step of the procedure and post-operative care to ensure success once the horse returns home. The surgery is understandably pricey, too, ranging from $8,000-10,000k, with aftercare around $150-200 per day for 6-8 weeks. The prosthesis is additional, typically costing in the $2,500-3,000 range.
In the case of Triple Vodka, the stallion had his surgery in the fall of 2021 and returned home to Texas in January 2022 where he happily resumed his breeding career. Here he is on his way to the shed: