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Preventing Laminitis in Horses

ginny the cob, the type to get obesity related laminitis, equine flu

Laminitis is the most well researched cause of lameness in the world. Despite all this research into this condition, it still affects hundreds of horses each year in the UK alone. It’s hard to say whether this is down to a lack of knowledge in the cause of the condition or if it is down to a lack of understanding of how serious this condition can be.

What is Laminitis?

Laminitis is a condition which predominantly affects the foot and leads to lameness. A horse could be mildly lame or extremely lame, depending on the damage and the horse’s personal tolerance to pain.

When you look at the structure of the horse’s foot, the horses toe (pedal bone) attaches to the inside of the hoof capsule by the laminae. Laminitis is when these laminae become damaged or weakened.

This weakening can lead to the pedal bone coming away from the side of the hoof capsule and in severe cases this bone can ‘sink’ down the hoof. In mild cases there is a good prognosis for a full recovery. But more serious cases can be fatal. While working for a farrier retailer I saw some horrific cases where the pedal bone had pierced through the sole of the foot and had been worn down!

Common Symptoms of Laminitis?

The symptoms of laminitis vary depending on the type of laminitis and how bad the case is. However there are some key symptoms that are very common for horses suffering with laminitis and they are fairly easy to spot.

  • Very hot feet maybe with a strong digital pulse.
  • Lameness
  • Laminitic stance
  • Distorted hoof shape/unusual rings
  • Shortened stride

If your horse is showing any of these symptoms I recommend contacting your vet right away. They may not need to come out to you, especially if they are only showing minor symptoms. But they will be able to talk you through the best next steps for your horse. Afterall, laminitis is an emergency – just like colic!

Example of a pony in the laminitic stance

A pony showing the laminitic stance. Credit World Horse Welfare

What causes Laminitis?

In most cases, Laminitis is caused by diet and bodyweight. Specifically diets high in starch and sugar. Initially it was thought that this was down to horses becoming overweight and therefore putting extra strain on the laminae. However more recent research has found that these types of diet can also affect the microbial balance and insulin levels, both of which can lead to a horse developing laminitis.
However, diet isn’t the only factor which can lead to a horse developing laminitis. Horse’s with conditions such as Cushing’s disease are often more prone to developing laminitis. Horses can also develop ‘concussion laminitis’. This is where exercise or injury puts excess strain on the laminae and leads to a laminitic response.

Are some horses more prone to laminitis?

While any horse can get laminitis, some types of horse are more prone to developing it than others. With these horses you may need to take extra steps or be more mindful in your management of them to help prevent laminitis.

Horses more prone to laminitis include:

  • Natives
  • Those who have had it in the past
  • Those with cushings
  • Mares with a foal at foot
  • Overweight horses

native pony mare and foal

Preventing Laminitis

Prevention is much better than a cure. So horse owners should be proactive when they have horses who are prone to laminitis. There are plenty of tips and tricks out there for managing horses and ponies to prevent the onset of laminitis. But really it comes down to 3 things:

  • Managing Body Weight
  • Low Starch, Low Sugar Diet
  • Good and Regular Farriery

Managing Body Weight

Assessing your horses condition

If you have a horse you believe to be prone to laminitis or has had laminitis in the past, managing their body weight is extremely important. But before you can manage their weight, you need to understand what a horse in good condition looks like and where your horse is in this scale. I tend to use the 1-9 scale with the optimum condition being a 5. Baileys Horse Feeds do a fantastic guide for Body Condition Scoring if you are unsure.

Once you know where your horse is on the body condition scale, you need to have an accurate idea of what they weigh. This is so that you can make sure you are feeding the correct amount of feed for their weight. While a weighbridge is the most accurate way to keep track of your horse’s body weight, very few of us have regular access to one of these. So many of us make do with a weight tape, which are fairly accurate at estimating a horse’s weight.

Forage Feeding

Forage (grass/hay) should make up the majority of your horse’s diet with them eating 1.5-2% of their body weight in forage every day. Limiting how much forage your horse has to be more around the 1-1.5% mark can be a great way to help keep their weight down. However, while cutting down their forage is important, leaving them without forage for hours at a time leaves them open to developing issues such as stomach ulcers.

Rather than removing forage, you should instead look at ways of slowing down your horse so that they have almost constant access but eat less over the course of the day. This can be done using products such as the HayGrazer, where the horses have to work a little bit harder to get to the hay than standard haynets or feeding from the floor. This means that they eat less over the same period of time and therefore consume less calories.

Hay grazer play tirckle feed bag for laminitis prevention

It is also important to remember that grass is forage too. I am all for horses having as much turnout as possible, so rather than keeping them inside, I recommend strip grazing or the use of a ‘starvation’ paddock. Both these methods involve limiting the amount of lush grass the horse has access to. In strip grazing you fence off a smaller area in the field and allow the horse to eat this all down before moving the fence out to give them more of the ungrazed grass. Whereas a starvation paddock is eaten down by another horse so the best and easiest to eat grass is all gone. This means your horse has less to eat when in there. But it is important that they still have access to some grass or hay and that it isn’t completely bald.

Low Starch, Low Sugar Diet

What to Feed

With starch and sugar being directly linked to the development of laminitis, a low starch and sugar diet is a great way to prevent the onset of laminitis. There are hundreds of feeds out there marketed at laminitic horses. But before you start considering all the options, really consider if your horse needs a feed.

If you have a good doer in light work, they may not need any extra calories at all. So you might not need to feed them anything. However, if you believe they are the sort to be prone to laminitis, they are likely to be on restricted grazing and are probably unlikely to be getting everything they need from the grass/hay alone. In these cases I would recommend feeding a balancer. I personally love Baileys Horse Feeds range of balancers with their Lo-Cal balancer being great for laminitic horses. If your horse is in a higher level of work, you can look at upgrading to a performance balancer or adding chaff to their feeds to help give them everything they need. Dengie do a good range of products suitable for the good doer and laminitic prone.

Baileys lo cal balancer for laminitis

Ditch the treats

Lots of the treats we give our horses have a high sugar content. Even carrots and apples can be high in sugar. So you should really cut down any treats you give your horse and perhaps look at swapping the treats you feed. Scottie tends to have grass nuts which are low calorie and designed as a forage replacer. They are a good reward without the extra sugar and calories of other alternatives.

Baileys Fibre Plus Nuggets for laminitis

Sugar in Forage

As I have already mentioned, feeding forage is incredibly important. However, some forage can be high in sugar and can trigger laminitis. If you feed good quality hay or haylage, I would consider soaking or steaming your hay, ideally overnight. This brakes down a lot of the carbohydrate so that there is less sugar and starch available for the horse to eat. It can also be a good way to feed plenty of forage without giving your horse too many calories.

Did you know that frosty and dew covered grass in the morning often has a higher sugar content than later in the day? If your horse is prone to laminitis it might be worth waiting an hour or two before turning them out in the mornings in these conditions.

Regular Farriery

Good and regular farriery is important for all horses, but especially to those suffering with, or are prone to laminitis. Now I am not saying that you need to have shoes on to prevent laminitis! But, a farrier can help trim and/or shoe the hoof to relieve any strain put on the laminae. They are also more likely to notice subtle changes in the hoof which could be the early signs of a problem before you have noticed any other symptoms.

Act Fast!

While it is possible to treat laminitis, prevention is always better than treatment. If you have any doubts about our horse or pony always call your vet. The faster you act, the better outcome your horse has.

Last Updated on 20/08/2021

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