Prosthetic Limbs for Horses: A Closer Look

Horses have traditionally been considered obligate four-legged animals; however, the dogma is changing. Three-legged horses that walk easily with the assistance of a prosthetic limb are not as uncommon as they once were.

Case in point: Midnite is a 4-year-old Miniature Horse who was seized from an allegedly neglectful owner. He was placed at Ranch Hand Rescue in Argyle, Texas, where staff members were instantly faced with the fact that the colt had no hoof on his right hind leg. His new caretakers contemplated euthanizing the Midnite for humane reasons, but instead, began exploring the possibility of a prosthesis. Not long after, he was fitted with a prosthetic limb and now leads a relatively normal life at the rescue, galloping and playing with the help of his new leg.

According to Ted P. Vlahos, DVM, MS, Dipl. ABVP, of Sheridan Equine Hospital PC, in Wyo., who is experienced in working with equine prosthetics, one of the keys to successful management of a horse with a prosthesis is working with a certified prosthetist to ensure proper molding, fitting, and construction of the artificial limb.

"All of our prosthetic limbs have been custom made by our local human prosthetic company, Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics in Sheridan," Vlahos said. There are also several companies that specialize in equine prosthetics.

The limbs are typically made of either laminate or carbon graphite with a titanium post, and polyurethane foam liners are used to ensure a proper fit. There is a stainless steel rocker foot plate with borium on the ground surface to provide traction.

"Once the prosthesis is applied, we carefully monitor the limb for several days to ensure that the foam liners and padding are adequate," Vlahos added, as inadequate padding can lead to pressure sores on the stump of the leg.

Prosthetics also include shock absorbers to lessen the pressure on the stump. Some prosthetics are also equipped to bend, making it easier for the horse to lie down and stand back up.

Vlahos noted that each prosthetic company differs in price, but in recent years a prosthesis from his supplier has cost around $5,000. Each prosthesis should last for several years, he added.

These prosthetic legs are not maintenance-free, Vlahos added. The horse will wear a human prosthetic sock that requires changing approximately every one to two days. Additionally, the straps that hold the prosthesis in place and the foam liners require periodic replacement.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.