The risk that never goes away
We learned the hard way that when a horse is predisposed to laminitis, complacency can have devastating costs.
Shasta, our Fox Trotter gelding, is insulin resistant, which is a metabolic disorder that leaves him prone to laminitis. We didn’t know this when we bought him as a yearling. In fact, we didn’t even know what those two conditions were.
We learned---quickly---after Shasta developed laminitis when he was just 2 years old. Laminitis is a horrible disease. The soft connective tissues that anchor the horse’s coffin bone to the interior of the hoof wall become inflamed, which causes severe pain. The horse becomes reluctant to walk or sometimes even stand. The affected hooves will feel hot, and you can feel a bounding pulse in the fetlock. In severe cases, the coffin bone can tear away from the hoof wall, rotate downward and actually pierce the sole of the hoof.
It also pierces the soul of the owner. Watching your horse suffer causes great anguish. A horse in this kind of pain seems to simply lose interest in life. He moves slowly, if at all, and seems to care little about food, water or his surroundings. In the worst cases, the kindest thing is to end the sufferer’s life.
When Shasta was 2, he began walking gingerly, then he lay down and was reluctant to get up. Our veterinarian diagnosed laminitis and prescribed a course of action. Fortunately, x-rays showed that his coffin bones had not separated from the hoof walls, so his case was not that bad. My wife and I nursed Shasta as directed, and gradually he improved. In time he seemed just fine and as sound as ever, although we did notice some changes in the shape of his feet.
We researched insulin resistance and laminitis and, with our veterinarian’s advice, we changed Shasta’s diet to limit starches and sugars, and we bought him special vitamin and mineral supplements. We had been feeding our horses various types of hay, including alfalfa and oat hay. We know now oat hay has a high sugar content, which may have triggered that first episode.
Years passed, and Shasta thrived. He became a fine saddle horse. He was never unsound, and in time our worries about laminitis faded. We were good to him---too good---and allowed him to gain weight. He developed fat deposits and a cresty neck.
Then, when he was 16, Shasta had another attack of laminitis. This time, the x-rays showed that the coffin bone in one hoof had started to rotate. We called in a farrier experienced with laminitis and had Shasta trimmed to support his damaged foot. We also put Shasta, and all of our horses, on a weightreducing diet.
Shasta’s insulin resistance may have increased his vulnerability---but we know that this bout of laminitis was brought on by too much food and not enough exercise. This time, we have only ourselves to blame for the worry and the expense because we had forgotten that this particular horse is predisposed to this horrible condition. We can barely forgive ourselves for not remembering that his good health is nothing to take for granted.
As of this writing, after several months, Shasta seems to be doing much better. He’s a little slimmer, his cresty neck is decreasing and he even foxtrotted to his feeder today. It will take more healing and a few more trims until we will know when---or if--we can ride Shasta again.
And thank God if time and trims are all it takes for him to survive and recover. This is a lesson we will not forget.
CLOSE CALL: Shasta is recovering from his second bout of laminitis, which occurred many years after his first.