Equine lives in the balance: Why must a horse with a broken leg be destroyed? Mike Rowbottom finds out

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THE MISERABLE incident at last week's Horse of the Year Show, when Sir Arkay was put down after breaking a leg, horrified all who witnessed it.

When a horse gets up and starts staggering about gamely on its uninjured legs - as Sir Arkay did after failing to negotiate an innovative 10ft bank which was subsequently removed from the course - to have it destroyed seems even harder to accept.

But the decision, taken within eight minutes of the fall, to inject the horse with a fatal dose of anaesthetic was not a difficult one to make. Sir Arkay had a multiple fracture of a tibia, high up in his near hind leg, which those who specialise in the treatment of horses recognise is virtually impossible to treat.

That is not to say that recent technological and medical advances have not changed the outlook for many injured horses. 'In a lot of cases, animals which would have been put down 10 years ago will now be saved,' Andy Bathe, an equine surgeon at Rossdale and Partners in Newmarket, says.

The higher up a fracture, the more difficult it is to treat. Fractures below the knee in front legs, or below the hock in those at the back, are now repaired routinely. Of 111 racehorses treated for fractured legs at Rossdale's this year, for instance, all but eight have survived.

The majority of those fatalities occurred with injuries higher up the leg - where splints or casts cannot be applied, and there is no means of supporting the injury other than by implanting bolts and plates. These come under enormous stress, particularly when a horse is stumbling around recovering from the anaesthetic. 'When you are dealing with a fracture of the kind that Sir Arkay suffered in an adult horse the chances of a successful repair are extremely poor,' Tim Phillips, an equine surgeon from the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket, says. 'There is no way you can tell a horse to stay in bed for 12 hours. Their instinct is to stand, and when half a ton of horse is putting its weight on a bone that is completely non-functional we are relying on the metalwork we have to counteract the forces.'

There are other factors at work in decisions to destroy horses than medical and technological ones. 'It is also a question of economics,' Brian Abraham, chief veterinary officer of the Jockey Club, says. 'If the horse is valuable for breeding then of course it's worthwhile trying. But if it isn't, the costs are so high that it really is a nonsense. Mending broken legs is not financially viable. These are the financial facts of life.'

Abraham and the Jockey Club's recently formed veterinary committee will meet in a fortnight's time to discuss means of reducing fatalities on courses in Britain.

Another more comfortable factor which comes into the decision to destroy a horse is the calculation of suffering which prolonged and uncomfortable treatment might inflict upon the animal. In some cases it comes down to the individual temperament of the horse involved. Without his equable nature, Mill Reef, the Derby winner of 1971, would have been unlikely to recover from the multiple fracture of a foreleg which he suffered in training on Watership Down the following year.

Clive Brittain, trainer of this year's St Leger winner, User Friendly, has had to make the decision to put down about a dozen of his horses in his 20-year career. 'There are very few grey areas,' he says. 'I would love to put off the moment when you say a horse must go. It's a very hard one to take. But when you see the expression of a horse, the hopelessness in his eyes, you know you are doing the right thing.'

Bernard Hampson had a happier experience three years ago when his horse Madraco, a six- year-old that had won pounds 86,000 in prize money, suffered a fall which left it with a cracked hock and a rear fetlock hanging loose. The course vet was prepared to put the horse down, but its owner preferred to see if it could be treated.

Madraco's leg is now strong enough for him to service mares at his stables in Nantwich. Hampson would not reveal the exact figure for treatment - 'my wife might read it' - but acknowledged that we were talking tens of thousands. Madraco was luckier than he knew. Not many horses are valued that highly.