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Surgery and Slings: Just Another Day Around Horses

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Written by Horse Rookie

Horse Riding and Broken Collarbones, a Match Made in the Dirt

My doctor sees me once a year for an annual checkup — that’s it. When asked for my health history (usually on a clipboard), I disclose my anxiety then pivot to the phrase “medically uninteresting.” Hospital admittance? Never. Surgery? Nope. Broken bones, sprains, or fractures? Nada. Concussions? *Shakes head.* Serious illnesses? Luckily no. 

Having an unusually spotless health record made me feel like my nervous nelly personality and safety precautions pay off. Being medically uninteresting is actually a point of pride for me. 

Correction: It was a point of pride for me.

The Best of Intentions

As with most horse-related accidents, mine began with the best of intentions. My gelding had been out of commission for months with a popped splint and underlying fracture. (Yes, I appreciate the irony.) 

A friend asked me to ride her mare for the summer while she recovered from hip surgery. (Yes, I appreciate the extra irony.) I gladly accepted, as I knew the horse fairly well. 

appaloosa mare riding

It was fun to have a new challenge while my horse was unavailable

Riding, as it turned out, was never really the issue — the core issue was ground manners. The mare didn’t respect boundaries, and she often moved into my space, acted pushy, tugged on the lead rope, and walked too close to me. She’d also been known to be tough to trailer load and pull back when tied in a trailer.

I worked hard to set clear expectations and enforce them on the ground — and in the saddle. I soon saw her attitude shift, and she seemed more comfortable and confident once she understood how to play within my boundaries. 

In fact, the day before my accident we had our best lesson yet!

How Things Went Awry

We were signed up for a trail riding clinic that weekend, and my coach briefly mentioned the mare had previous issues crossing water — in particular, a creek that runs through one of their pastures.

I admitted I was a bit nervous about riding her across the water, given her past experiences. When my trainer said, “You can also practice from the ground,” I thought that was a great idea. I’d come out the following day, wear my rain boots, and lead her through a few times from the ground so she’d be more comfortable by the clinic. 

It would also allow me to see how she behaved with the water crossing, as I’d never done one with this horse before. 

The next day, I grabbed a halter, rain boots, and a lunge whip, and the mare and I headed for the back pasture. Her attitude seemed quiet and willing, and she followed me over a smaller section of the creek without a moment’s pause. 

Then we took 5-10 minutes to do groundwork in the clearing near the creek. I worked her in both directions, asked her to disengage her hindquarters each way, and she was super through it all. 

appaloosa mare

The cute culprit a few minutes before my accident

Feeling confident about her mindset and obedience, I led her over to the creek. The bank was steeper than I remembered — a 2-3 foot drop into about a foot of muddy water. 

I loosened the lead rope so I could navigate the bank without tugging on the horse and stepped down. My rain boot sunk into the mud and water up to my calf, and I struggled to free it to I could step onto the opposite bank. 

Apparently, the mare felt that was the perfect moment to “follow” by leaping across the creek… and directly into me.

Surprise Body Slam

Through

me might be a better description. 

All I remember is a tremendous force of a horse crashing into me as she landed on the other side of the creek… and galloped away. I fell onto my left side — and some rocks — but thankfully didn’t hit my head. 

Upon reflection, I should have put on a helmet even though I wasn’t riding.

I lie on the ground stunned for several moments, trying to process what had just happened. One minute, everything was going great. The next minute, I had the wind knocked out of me, was covered in mud, felt a throbbing left shoulder, and watched the mare run up the hill to the nearest paddock of horses.

Broken

As I stumbled to my feet, I reached up to feel my left shoulder. Blinking away stars, I traced up my arm to my collarbone and realized something was very wrong. 

My clavicle (i.e. collarbone) moved when I pressed on the left side. It didn’t move on the right. I was pretty sure both sides should act the same…

I vaguely remember climbing up the hill and catching the mare. I was worried about her getting into a fight with the horses over the fence, and I managed to grab her lead rope. 

My vision kept fading in and out, and I thought I might pass out.

I wasn’t in much pain at that point, oddly enough. Adrenaline was coursing through my veins, and a dull ache on my left collarbone was the only reminder something wasn’t right.

Well, that and the sound pieces of bone make when they move against each other.

I reached the top of the hill and sat down, still holding the lead rope. Digging my phone from my breeches pocket, I dialed my coach. He answered on the second ring. 

“It didn’t go great,” I said. “Pretty sure she broke my collarbone.”

sleepy horse

She wasn’t sorry…but she was sleepy

He may have responded, but I can’t remember what he said. Within moments, though, he appeared, took the lead rope from my hands, and helped me up. He peered at my left clavicle and winced. 

Next stop: urgent care.

“That’s Not Pretty”

It didn’t take an advanced medical degree to know I’d broken my clavicle. A couple x-rays at the urgent care clinic confirmed it, and the nurse who looked at the films simply said, “That’s not pretty.”

Sure enough, I could see my clavicle was now in two pieces — not one — and those pieces weren’t in the same zip code anymore.

broken collarbone horse riding

My left collarbone

The nurse fitted me with a sling, told me I’d likely need surgery, and (somehow) secured a referral appointment with his favorite orthopedic surgeon within 30 minutes.

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High Risk of Not Healing

The last place I wanted to go during COVID is a doctor’s waiting room, but I didn’t have a choice. I knew it was a near-miracle that the specialist had made time for me. 

broken collarbone horse riding

Waiting room vibe = not thrilled

“You look better than I thought you would given your x-rays,” the surgeon said when he opened the door. I was sitting up tall in a chair, left arm cradled in a sling, and not crying. Perhaps that wasn’t normal.

What followed was 30 minutes of Q&A about my options, why he recommended surgery, and what the experience would be like. Thankfully, he was empathetic and kind when I talked about my struggles with anxiety. He didn’t make me feel weak or broken (aside from my collarbone), and he patiently walked me through how the following day would look if we moved ahead.

Though he didn’t pressure me to get surgery, it was evident that the chances of my clavicle healing (well) without it was basically zero.

“I’d better cowgirl up and do it then,” I said.

Note: If you’re not familiar with fractured clavicles (I wasn’t either), check out this overview and the video below.

Plates and Screws

After a pretty restless night (it’s hard to sleep without moving at all), mom dropped me off at the surgery center bright and early. Because of COVID, I had to go back alone and was glad to see the friendly nurse I’d met the previous day. 

The next hour or so involved an IV, nerve block, and a chat with the anesthesiologist. Then my memory fades to black.

I awoke the proud owner of a titanium clavicle plate and eight screws.

broken clavicle horse rider

Getting back on track

Everything had gone well, and I was allowed to go home about an hour after surgery with a small stack of prescriptions, my trusty sling, and a green arm and hand. (Thanks, surgical scrub.)

surgical scrub

My weird green hand

Healing Up

Surprisingly, I felt very little pain after surgery — even once the nerve block wore off. I fully credit my amazing team of medical unicorns for doing such a great job.

The incision, though, looked pretty gnarly.

broken collarbone incision

First broken bone, first surgery, first scar

For the two weeks or so, I was fairly useless. I couldn’t put on my own shirts, wash my own hair, or drive a car. I definitely couldn’t ride a horse, or even halter one. 

The good news was that I didn’t need any pain medication after the first weekend.

At my follow-up appointment, I got my stitches out and was able to ditch the sling. After another two weeks, I didn’t have any “range restrictions” on how I could move my left arm. (Still no lifting though.)

Best of all? This was the exchange I had with the doctor: 

  • Him: You can hike as much as you want. 
  • Me: I don’t hike. 
  • Him: Or… walk… as much as you want.
  • Me: How would you feel about one-armed activities within my range restrictions that don’t require lifting?
  • Him: Such as?
  • Me: Riding my horse.
  • Him: Is he a nice horse?
  • Me: Very nice — and not the horse that broke me.
  • Him: Then I’m fine with it.

And just like that, I was approved to ride again!

Horse Riding After a Broken Collarbone

I’ve ridden twice since my accident, and everything has gone well. My coach has to saddle and unsaddle for me, since I can’t lift anything yet. I also had to switch hands on my western reins — that was an adjustment!

If you’ve been following along on my monthly horse expense reports, you know my horse was out of commission for five months this year. He fractured his leg and popped a splint this Spring, and he had to be on paddock rest until his bone healed. 

Ironically, my horse finally got a clean bill of health the week before my accident.

Our timing is… not great.

No wonder riding my own horse again felt so special. I tested out some of our former skills — like lateral work and stops — and it felt like we’d never been apart.

We even threw in a perfect flying lead change at the end of our first ride!

We’re back.

horse riding view

Back aboard my beloved horse

Moving Forward

This year certainly hasn’t been my favorite — not by a long shot.

But sitting aboard my horse, stroking his neck, I feel lucky. I’m glad I wasn’t hurt more seriously. I’m glad my medical team was so wonderful. I’m glad to have a sport I love and want to return to even when things go wrong.

Whether you’ve broken your clavicle, or suffered a different setback, healing takes time. 

Be patient with yourself and your horse, and you’ll find your way back to each other when the time is right.

broken collarbone scar

My incision one month after surgery

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Frequently Asked Questions

Why is the collarbone the most commonly broken bone?

Broken clavicles are a common injury after a fall. If you try to “break your fall” with your arm, for example, your collarbone often takes the brunt of the force.

How bad is a broken collarbone?

It depends on the type of fracture, but generally this injury is quite manageable. Many people don’t require surgery, but even those that do have a overwhelmingly positive outlook.

That isn’t to say breaking a bone is a wonderful experience. Fractured bones of any kind can be quite painful, and it will impact activities you’re able to do until it’s fully healed. 

But, as someone who has broken a collarbone and needed surgery, it really isn’t the end of the world!

What NOT to do if you break your collarbone?

First things first, do not YouTube “Broken Clavicle Surgery.” #trustme

Seek medical advice, weigh your options, then follow the advice of your orthopedic team. It’s likely these items will be on the no-no list, at least for a while: 

  • Do not lift your arm above 90 degrees
  • Do not move your arm any more than absolutely necessary
  • Do not lift anything heavier than a half gallon of milk
  • Do not sleep on the affected arm
  • Do not engage in “risky” activities until the bone is fully healed

How do they fix a broken collarbone?

If you don’t require surgery, you will likely be given a simple sling (or figure-eight brace) to stabilize your clavicle and arm until the bone heals. 

If you do need surgery, you will likely get a metal plate and screws to hold your bone in place until it heals. Though a bit scarier (and a lot more expensive), surgical cases tend to recover a lot faster and with less pain. That’s certainly been the case for me!

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How do you treat a broken collarbone scar?

There are a few ways to ensure your scar heals well: 

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Is horseback riding bad for your body?

Generally speaking, horse riding is great exercise for mind and body. You can develop muscle, coordination, critical thinking skills, and mental toughness — all while hanging out with these beautiful animals. 

That said, riding can also be dangerous. Even being around horses on the ground can be risky, as my accident shows. 

You’re the only person who can decide if the benefits of equestrianism outweigh the risks.

Can you ride a horse with one arm?

Yes! Western riding is typically a one-arm style, though you can also ride with two reins in some cases.

English riders use two hands exclusively, but that doesn’t mean you can’t adjust if you’ve injured your arm. Just be sure to double-check that it’s okay with your doctor first.

Can you ride a horse with a broken collarbone?

As long as your doctor says it’s fine, you may be able to ride with a broken collarbone. I certainly wouldn’t want to do so in the first few weeks, but as your bone begins to heal you’ll be able to expand your abilities. 

If you’re waiting for a collarbone to heal without surgery, you may have to wait longer to ride. Jostling your clavicle will delay healing (or reinjure you), and you’ll end up out of the saddle longer. 

If you have surgery, like I did, you might be able to ride again within 2-4 weeks. Again, be sure to check with your doctor first.

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About the author

Horse Rookie

I began riding horses at age six, and I'm just as infatuated (OK, more!) with the sport decades later. My AQHA gelding exemplifies the versatility of the breed -- reined cow horse, reining, roping, ranch riding, trail, dressage, and jumping. We're also dipping our toes (hooves) into Working Equitation!

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