Laminitis Prevention & Advice

It's an age-old saying - "No Foot, No Horse"

What is Laminitis?

Laminitis is an extremely painful condition of the hooves which affects 1 in 10 horses and ponies every year - a huge and frightening statistic. It affects the sensitive tissue in the hoof called the laminae, causing it to stretch, weaken and become damaged. The laminae works like velcro, forming a strong bond to hold the pedal bone in place within the hoof. Because the hoof wall is rigid, the sensitive laminae within the hoof cannot expand with swelling, so it causes a lot of pain. Failure of the tissues bonding the hoof wall to the pedal bone can then cause the pedal bone itself to sink and rotate within the hoof under the horse's weight. In extreme cases the pedal bone can rotate and drop through the sole of the hoof - an excruciatingly painful and unfortunately (most likely) fatal outcome.

Laminitis is more commonly seen in the front hooves, but can occur in any of the hooves. Laminitis can affect any equine - horse, pony, donkey or mule - at any time of the year. There is no "safe season" for laminitis.

Causes of Laminitis

Any horse or pony can be affected by laminitis, but the risk of developing the condition is increased by certain circumstances. Once a horse or pony develops the condition it's likely to reoccur. It's important to think of laminitis as a sign of a disease, rather than a disease in itself, as it can have a range of causes - the root cause needs to be identified in order for the condition to be treated and prevented.

90% of laminitis cases are caused by an underlying hormonal disease (such as EMS or Cushings Disease) while weight gain more than doubles the risk. If your horse is overweight it's very important that you take steps to prevent laminitis where possible. There are links between laminitis and high levels of insulin, which explains the increase in risk during flushes of grass growth through the spring and summer months for laminitis-prone horses. Old age and native breeds of horses and ponies are also more prone.

Spotting the Symptoms

The main symptoms of laminitis are obvious. It's important to be familiar with more subtle symptoms to catch laminitis early. Monitor laminitis-prone horses regularly, especially through the spring and summer months. Knowing what's "normal" for your horse through regular checks will help you to react quickly if there are changes.

Key symptoms are:

  • Lameness affecting (most commonly) at least two limbs
  • Increased digital pulses (will feel strong and rapid) and/or heat in the feet
  • Shifting weight between the feet when resting
  • Horse leaning back onto its heels attempting to relieve the pain
  • Lameness is worse on hard ground or during turns
  • Pain with the use of hoof testers at the point of frog
  • Laminitic horses will often lie down to relieve the pain
  • Reluctance to pick up a front foot due to severe pain in the opposite, weight-bearing limb

Managing the Risks of Laminitis

Correctly managing the horse's weight and diet as best you can is the best way to prevent the onset of laminitis. Find more information and advice on managing your horse's weight here. It's best to regularly weigh and condition score your horse (we would recommend once per week). We see them daily, so it's easy to overlook gradual changes. Monitoring them regularly and recording their weight will make it obvious when their management needs to be adjusted. Consult your vet and consider speaking to a nutritionist to put together a weight loss plan.

Make sure you're very familiar with how your horse stands, moves and turns, both on soft and hard ground, to notice any changes quickly (this is important for quickly identifying injuries or abscesses, as well as laminitis). Pick the feet out daily, checking for any heat or pulse changes as you do so - this should be part of your daily routine.

Restrict grazing, especially if pasture is lush. Restrict the amount a horse can graze on if you can, not the length of time the horse is turned out. Grazing muzzles are a useful option to promote a "little and often" grazing habit.

At the onset of laminitis, consult your vet immediately for the best treatment method - they may be able to prescribe pain relief to help your horse. Your farrier will be able to support the health of your horse's feet too - it's worth discussing any concerns as your farrier will be your first port of call for any foot-related issue.