Unfortunately, laminitis affects horses and ponies every year, no matter what the season. It is an extremely painful condition that is caused by multiple factors and can result in permanent damage to the hooves.
What is Laminitis?
Laminitis is a serious condition that can cause significant damage to the foot of a horse. More specifically, it is damage to the sensitive lamellae which attach the pedal bone to the hoof wall; the lamellae weaken, elongate and may lead to breakage. The result of severe laminitis is the pedal bone no longer being supported in the hoof capsule causing it to rotate and sink, sometimes even puncturing the sole of the foot.
Signs & Symptoms
Commonly, laminitis can be present in all 4 limbs and is often worse in the forelimbs, yet sometimes only a single limb can be affected. Pain and lameness are the main signs of laminitis, however, there may be different levels of pain that indicate the different stages of laminitis.
Stages of Laminitis
This is the first stage where only microscopic changes are occurring within the hoof and only very subtle signs may be visible. Although hard to identify at this phase, make sure to pay great attention to detail to your horse’s general mood and posture.
This is the next stage where the laminitis is more developed which results in pain. Again, pay great attention to detail to your horse’s general mood and posture as these signs could be mistaken for other issues. These signs are:
- Reluctant to turn
- Lying down more than normal
- Change in behaviour/temperament
- Reluctant to pick up their feet and a shortened stride / a stiffened gait
- Shifting weight from foot to foot or rocking back on their hind legs – this is known as the laminitic stance
- Abnormal heat at the hoof wall or coronet and / or a strong pounding digital pulse
- Avoiding or being careful on hard ground / preferring to walk on soft ground
- Bounding, rapid or pronounced digital pulse
The earlier laminitis is noticed and diagnosed, the less damage will be caused and the more likely it is your horse will fully recover.
Finally, chronic laminitis refers to repeat episodes and horses and ponies who are higher risk of future episodes. Sadly, this stage is where physical changes to the hoof, such as the pedal bone rotating, are much more common. There will be signs of pain as mentioned above, but horses with chronic laminitis will also show these physical signs:
- Changes to the shape and angle of the hoof
- Bruising on the sole of the foot
- Rings on the outer hoof wall or hoof wall cracks
- A groove/indent just above the coronet band
What Causes It?
There is no one cause for laminitis; it is a very complex condition that may be caused by a combination of several different factors. Although research is still being undertaken, these are some of the most recognised causes of laminitis:
- Other Clinical Conditions: Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) Insulin resistance (IR) or Cushings Syndrome (Pars Pituitary Intermedia Dysfunction PPID). Also, Endotoxaemia associated laminitis can result from other illness such as colic or after a mare has foaled.
- Previous Damage & Lameness: If the horse has suffered injury from riding or jumping on hard ground, from insufficient fitness for workload, or has been lame on one limb for a long period of time, laminitis could be induced onto the other limbs from the extra weight and stress.
- Long-term Obesity: An overweight horse will put additional pressure on each foot which can result in the onset of laminitis, as well as other health problems.
- Stress: Stress can cause a number of issues including laminitis; events such as moving home, regularly travelling for long periods of time, or the loss of a field mate can all increase a horse’s stress levels.
The Horse’s Diet
It is also well known that a horse’s diet has a big part to play in both the onset and the severity of an laminitic episode, and also in managing laminitis. In particular, excessive total dietary calories, especially the calories from sugars and starch, are known to be implicated. This is because high dietary levels of these Non-Structural Carbohydrates (NSC), including fructans, may overwhelm the normal site of digestion in the horse’s upper gut, so they are passed through the hind gut.
Even though the fibre-digesting bacteria can digest NSC and fructans, excessive levels will disrupt the gut microbes, resulting in a drop in pH which kills the beneficial fibre-digesting microflora. Consequently, toxins are created which trigger metabolic changes and, although the exact mechanisms are not clear, this change in the gut microbiome can trigger laminitis. The main things to look out for in your horse’s diet are:
- Excessive daily overall calories –
- Excessive intakes of grass high in high water soluble carbohydrates (WSC) consumed during spring and autumn grass growth flushes, as well as stressed grass.
- Concentrate feeds that are high in sugar.
- Large cereal-based meals.
How to Manage Laminitis with Careful Feeding
Conduct a Forage Intake Assessment
It is vital to accurately assess forage intake, focusing on the amount of forage as well as the type of forage. If your horse is prone to laminitis, make sure they do not overindulge on forage as this will be the vast majority of their diet. This is likely to mean restricting access to grazing during spring and autumn. Strip grazing, track grazing or a well-fitting muzzle can all be helpful to restrict intake. Forage selection should be clean, not dusty, and should have a high stalk-to-leaf ratio as very leafy, green forage will have higher levels of NSC.
Choose Other Forage Options
Choose bagged forage products rather than air dried hay as they will have lower NSC levels due to the fermentation process. Clean oat straw is also another good option as it is lower in NSC than most grass hays and, when carefully introduced, can provide a useful low NSC, low calorie, high fibre forage. Providing a proportion of the daily forage allocation as straw can help meet both the psychological need to chew and to help maintain gut motility in horses and ponies on restricted diets.
Assess Your Horse’s Feed
As mentioned above, many concentrate and cereal-based feeds contain high levels of sugars or water soluble carbohydrates (WSC) and starch, so these should be removed from your horse’s diet. Instead, choose a fibre-based feed, low in sugars and starch, and make sure vitamins and minerals are provided through suitable intakes of high fibre concentrate feeds. Alternatively, you can include an additional supplement to ensure vital minerals and vitamins are provided.
Monitor Bodyweight & Exercise Regimes
The use of condition scoring and weight tapes can help to prevent obesity and to monitor weight loss programmes, if required. Research has also confirmed that developing and maintaining a suitable exercise regime is vital in helping to manage horses and ponies prone to laminitis.
Low Sugar & Starch Options from HorseHage
High Fibre HorseHage and Mollichaff HoofKind Complete have been designed to support horses prone to laminitis. With low levels of starch and sugar and high fibre levels, these are both great options for horses and ponies prone to laminitis.
Browse these products today and contact our friendly and knowledgeable helpline team either by phone or on one of our social media platforms, to discuss how High Fibre HorseHage and Mollichaff HoofKind Complete could help your horse or pony.