How to manage your horse to prevent the onset of laminitis
What is laminitis?
Laminitis is a widespread, extremely painful condition which is linked to in excess of 7% of equine deaths, with many horses having to be euthanised. It’s an inflammatory condition of the tissues (laminae) which bond the hoof wall to the pedal bone. Because the hoof wall is rigid, the sensitive laminae within the hoof cannot expand with swelling, therefore becoming excruciatingly painful and debilitating. The failure of the tissues bonding the hoof wall to the pedal bone can then cause the pedal bone to sink or rotate within the hoof under the horse’s weight. In extreme cases this can result in penetration of the sole of the foot by the pedal bone.
Laminitis is often a reoccurring condition for individual horses.
Certain factors can mean that horses and ponies are more at risk of developing laminitis:
- Flushes of grass growth through the spring and summer months
- Native (UK) breeds of horses and ponies
- Old age
- Hormonal diseases, e.g. equine Cushing’s disease and equine metabolic syndrome (EMS)
Identifying a laminitic horse or pony
The primary signs or symptoms of laminitis are clear:
- Lameness affecting (most commonly) at least two limbs
- Increased digital pulses
- Shifting weight between the feet when resting
- The horse leaning back onto its heel in attempt to relieve the pain
- Lameness is worse when the horse is on hard ground or during turns
- Pain with the use of hoof testers at the point of frog on the hoof
Managing horses at risk of laminitis
Managing the horse’s weight and diet is the best way of preventing the onset of laminitis. Restricting grazing by turning out for shorter periods, keeping to a smaller area/grazing more horses together or by using a grazing muzzle will help to manage the horse’s weight, along with regular exercise.
Strategies which don’t allow the horse to binge on grass when they have the opportunity are better – longer periods of time on short grass is more beneficial than 4 hours on longer grass.
Remember that horses on restricted grazing/forage are more likely to be vitamin and mineral deficient, so supplementing your horse’s diet correctly is important for overall health.
Stabling horses through the day and turning out overnight will help to aid weight loss, as the sugars in the grass are highest through daylight hours. However, for older or arthritic horses this method can prove counter-productive as movement is limited.
Increasing the amount of exercise and using the horse’s natural metabolism (by not rugging/under rugging during cold weather) are all ways to help your horse to lose weight.
It’s best to regularly (ideally weekly) weigh and condition score your horse to monitor progress. As the weather changes and more grass comes through your horse’s weight can fluctuate. Use a weight tape for an approximate weight for your horse, and take photos so that you can visually see the changes – you may not notice the weight loss if you see your horse daily.