Laminitis: Fall Risks
Laminitis is the most serious disease of the equine foot and causes pathological changes in anatomy that lead to longlasting, crippling changes in function (termed chronic laminitis or founder). It’s the second-biggest killer of horses after colic.
A horse has laminitis when the foot’s lamina, the connecting fibers between hoof wall and bone, suddenly fail. Without the bone properly attached to the inside of the hoof, the horse’s weight and the forces of locomotion drive the bone down into the hoof capsule. Arteries and veins are sheared and crushed, and the blooddelivery system to the coronet and sole is damaged. This results in unrelenting foot pain and lameness.
Autumn-laminitis risk factors include hormonal disorders (such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome and Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction — formerly Cushing’s Disease); obesity; a ridged hoof wall or changes in hoof-growth pattern; springtime bouts of laminitis; grain overload; drug reactions; high fever; and high stress.
Rich grass doesn’t directly cause laminitis, but it can be a contributing factor. Some horses are sensitive either to weight gain from grass or to something in the grass itself. Most grass pastures dry up or become dormant in the winter months in temperate climates.
Spring grass produces large amounts of sugary substances to give the pasture energy to grow and blossom, and the pasture hums with activity until the hot sun slows things down into midsummer dormancy. When fall comes, pastures are refreshed by warm days and cool nights, as well as more rain than in summer.
As autumn gets colder and darker, you might be tempted to feed your horse more hay, which can be as rich as lush grass.
Track your horse’s condition. Know your horse’s normal Henneke body-condition score. Photograph your horse several times a year. If you have access to a horse scale, record your horse’s weight, and keep it for reference. Work your horse. Keep your horse active. Ride, drive or pony him regularly, all year long. Watch the grain. Don’t increase your horse’s grain ration just because the air is crisp. Record how much grain you feed him from season to season. Measure grain with a marked scoop. Analyze hay. The best hay has less than 10 percent nonstructural carbohydrate (NSC). Soak hay for half an hour before feeding to reduce the sugar content. Note the weather. Cool nights and warm sunny days usually create the most lush pasture grass. When brown summer grass starts turning green, move at-risk horses off pasture. Use a grazing muzzle. Use a slowgrazing muzzle on at-risk horses, even for short turnout times. Use a dry lot. Turn a fenced-off area into a dry lot for an at-risk horse. Prevent grass growth with layers of sand, stone dust or wood chips. Even sparse grass and weeds can be dangerous to an at-risk horse. Know your horse’s foot condition. Ask your farrier how the white line looks and if he has bruises or founder rings on his feet. Keep a horse-health diary. Has your horse ever had mild lameness in the spring or fall? Do you see a pattern of seasonal lameness? Does the lameness correspond to changes in paddocks, or a new load of hay? Does your horse resist changing leads or prefer just one gait? Be prepared. If your horse has had laminitis in the past, discuss it with your veterinarian and farrier. Plan what to do if your horse becomes lame. Boots with supportive pads are a good investment if he does.
6 Signs of Laminitis
• Your horse may assume an unusual stance, with his front legs stretched out, or he may shift his weight from one foot to the other. • Your horse may walk gingerly, or rock
back and forth in his stall. • On the lead line, your horse may balk
when asked to turn. • Your horse may lie down more often than
usual. • You may notice changes in the growth of your horse’s feet. His heels may grow faster than the toes, and growth rings may look curved instead of symmetrical. The white line at the toe may be stretched. • You may feel a strong pulse at the back of your horse’s pastern and/or an abnormally warm hoof wall; these are danger signs.
Emergency Action Steps
If you believe that your horse is suffering from laminitis, slowly and carefully move him into a stall. Feed hay, but not grain or sugar-rich carrots and apples. Call both your veterinarian and your farrier.
Recent research proves that intensive ice soaking prevents laminitis in the early stages. Donald Walsh, DVM, recommends soaking your horse’s feet in deep ice water for the first 24 to 48 hours.
Avoid medicating your horse until he’s been seen by your veterinarian. Your vet needs to make an objective judgment about your horse’s level of pain and the severity of lameness. Your vet will likely draw up a diet and medication plan, test your horse’s hormone levels, and discuss a shoeing or trimming plan with your farrier. — Fran Jurga, editor and publisher of the Gloucester, Massachusetts-based Hoofcare & Lameness: The Journal of Equine Foot Science, and author of the informational Hoof Blog, www.hoof care.blogspot.com.