On Kauto Star and the implications of using cross-ties

Photos by Carine06 from UK of Kauto Star via Wikimedia Commons

Photos by Carine06 from UK of Kauto Star via Wikimedia Commons

National Hunt racehorse Kauto Star was euthanised last week after being injured, presumed to be from a fall. The vet looking after him has now said he may have fractured his neck several days before he was put down, but the injury wouldn't have been noticed previously as that part of the horse is difficult to x-ray. 

Kauto Star was put in cross-ties as it was presumed his pelvis was fractured: 

"We were worried he had a pelvis fracture. However, with injuries like that you are reluctant to move a horse to hospital as the more you move him the more you can make him unstable, so he was placed on box rest and cross-tied [where a horse is tied with a lead rope attached to each side of the head collar]."

Being in cross-ties means a horse cannot lie down easily, or at all. Horses with broken or fractured legs are cross-tied in the hope they will stay standing upright for months so the injury will heal. What doesn't seem to be discussed is the fact that horses need to lie down flat to achieve the vital stage of REM sleep. They can doze standing up, but they do also need to lie down to achieve the deeper phases of sleep.

It is believed that a minimum of 30 mins of REM sleep is necessary per day for horses to avoid becoming sleep deprived. This deep stage of sleep is essential - the body repairs itself, the immune system is strengthened and memories are consolidated, so this stage of sleep may also be vital for learning.

"...On Saturday evening he went down again in the cross-tie. He got straight back up but was distressed and in pain. He had made the pelvic fracture a little less stable, while the neck was also probably starting to deteriorate. He was losing his balance and also started to spike up a temperature, which made us believe he was getting pneumonia and a chest infection. It was at this point he was moved to hospital."

We all know how awful it feels not to get enough sleep, but to be unable to lie down and sleep, when in serious pain - as I assume Kauto Star was - doesn't bear thinking about. I am not surprised he tried to lie down - I'm sure most horses (and most of us) would if we were in the same position. 

I have never seen any articles or discussion about horses who are cross-tied being able to sleep properly. I know anecdotally that some may lean against walls (if they are close enough to one to do so) and maybe then can catch a few moments of the deeper phases of sleep that way. Many horses - even when cross tied very short - will try to get down and can injure themselves further as a result.

I do understand people have extremely valuable horses and want to fix injuries like broken legs. These people are prepared to put their horses through months of being cross-tied and sleep deprivation. But I do wonder how many realise what the horse may be going through mentally and physically - quite apart from the injuries they have sustained - the additional trauma that will cause and what the fallout will be for the horse long-term. 

A very sad end for an extraordinary horse. RIP Kauto Star.

You can read the full article in the Racing Post here.