Laminitis is one of the most dreaded conditions that cause foot pain to horses. Some horse owners underestimate this disease, but it can actually cause long-term problems and crippling changes in function and movement. Unfortunately, it leads to euthanasia in some circumstances.
So what exactly is laminitis? It’s an inflammation of the sensitive laminae in the hoof, causing a breakdown of the bond between the hoof wall and the distal phalanx or coffin bone. It ranges from mild to severely painful, and ultimately fatal if not treated correctly.
Once a horse or a pony has had laminitis, they are more prone to future episodes. In fact, according to a study, repeat episodes of laminitis were more frequently reported than the first episodes.
What are the causes of laminitis in horses?
There are many factors that cause laminitis, but one of the major reasons is sugar overload. Although grass is nutritious, it can also cause health hazards as it contains high levels of carbohydrates - sugar and starch. Grass sugar level is at its highest in spring (and often autumn) because they are actively growing. Late winter and early spring are times of frost, too. Frost stresses the plant and raises sugar levels even further. Anything that stresses a plant, will increase its sugar levels, therefore, drought will also have the same effect.
Excessive weight-bearing stress on a horse’s feet can also lead to laminitis. If your horse has an injury on one leg, they are capable of developing compensatory laminitis on the other foot. It is therefore important to take care of the supporting limb as well in times of major lameness or injury. Other causes are concussion of the hooves on hard surfaces, overeating grain, infection, medications, retained placenta after foaling and stress.
Symptoms are different for each horse, but some notable early signs of laminitis are changes in attitude, reluctance to move, pain in the toes, hooves having long toes, showing minor reluctance to turn tight circles, visible bruises in the white line or hoof wall and the most obvious, significant horizontal rings around the hoof wall.
Usually, several signs will appear together or become noticeable over the course of a few days. But take note that these signs need to be evaluated first.
Although laminitis is a very common condition, there are ways to prevent it from happening. Since spring is just around the corner, here are some steps you can take to reduce your equine’s chances of developing laminitis.
1. Make dietary changes
Excess sugar/starch intake is the leading cause of laminitis. Even small portions of grass or other feeds that have high sugar levels may trigger it. So it’s important to make some proper changes to your horse’s diet. Short, stressed grass is a nightmare for at-risk horses and ponies.
When it comes to grazing, the safest time to graze is between 3 am to 10 am. Don’t leave your equines out overnight during lush pasture as sugars are at their highest levels in the afternoons/evenings.
Avoid feeding grass to susceptible and at-risk horses and ponies as much as possible during afternoons and evenings. Feed them nutritional and high-quality hays that are low in sugar.
Changing feeds are ideally done slowly as sudden changes can also disrupt the good bacteria in their body, which can lead to more stress. A constant supply of low sugar or high-quality hay is paramount for enabling horses to recover quicker and reduce stress.
Anything that will stress a horse or pony will increase the recovery time, particularly if they have EMS (Equine Metabolic Syndrome), IR (Insulin Resistant) or Cushing’s Disease. Being starved for weight loss is a HUGE stress and will often extend the time that it takes to recover. Having a companion can also be a good stress relief as long as that companion is ‘nice.’
GutzBusta® 6cm Medium Hay Net
Another helpful way to manage their weight is to recognize that weight loss in winter is a normal part of the equine cycle. It can be beneficial to have a few kilos less before they hit the spring pastures, which can prevent or delay them from being overweight coming into spring. Old horses, competition horses, injured horses, broodmares and young horses certainly need their weight and nutrition managed through winter, but for your average paddock ornament, it is not a bad thing for them to lose a little weight during winter.
As the old-timers say, “Hay is as good as a rug.” So if you know the weather forecast is for wet and or cold weather, particularly if windy too, then make sure you supply your horses adequate fibre in the form of hay to help keep them warm, especially if not rugged.
This is where our GutzBusta® Slow Feed Hay Nets can come in handy. Not only it will keep the hay together and not allow the hay to be tossed and blown away, it also enables you to regulate the speed in which you want your equines to be able to access their hay. For example, in winter, I use 4cm and 6cm sized holes, but in summer I am more likely to use 3cm and 4cm sized holes for our own horses.
Hay type also influences the hole size chosen. For my own horses, I would use 3cm for lucerne, 4cm for low sugar palatable hay and 6cm for low sugar, not very palatable hay.
2. Use slow feed hay nets
One of the easiest ways to prevent laminitis from happening is by managing your horse’s weight. Changing their diet alone is not enough. You also need to use some tools like slow feed hay nets that help in weight control.
High-risk horses should be confined to a dry lot, but they should ALWAYS have access to fibre such as hay. Your horses still need to eat for at least 18-20 hours a day. Provide them with adequate soaked hay or high-grade, low sugar pasture hay so that they can eat all day.
GutzBusta® Slow Feed Hay Nets in small and medium can be a godsend as they keep the hay confined while soaking, allow easy draining and they’re easy to hang. Available in 3cm, 4cm, and 6cm, our hay nets are made from tough, durable, UV-stabilized, and heat-treated 60ply polyethylene netting. This netting is not water absorbent, so you don’t have to worry about your net getting heavy when soaked in water.
Slow feed hay nets are also recommended by vets as they prevent obesity, colic and insulin resistance. By using hay nets, you can regulate your equine’s forage consumption and reduce boredom by doubling the time it takes for them to eat.
An interesting occurrence that happens when using our slow feed hay nets is that fat horses will often lose weight and skinny horses will often put on weight. We assume that this is due to the constant supply of hay in a controlled/regulatory manner.
GutzBusta® 3cm Medium Hay Net
3. Exercise your horses
Aside from making dietary changes, exercise helps in taking off extra pounds and improves insulin sensitivity. It also promotes good blood flow and aids in managing excess calories.
Start with a 5 to 10-minute walk twice a day. Give your horses ample space where they can wander and stay active. This will help them maintain a healthy weight and reduce the burden on their feet at the same time. But do not force a very sore horse to walk. It is more important to get the pain under control, get management steps in place and improve comfort levels by providing sawdust or sand as a comfortable surface to lie on. If you can manage to hand walk your horse 20 minutes, 4 to 5 times a week when sound enough, then this can really help.
Having a knowledgeable vet and experienced trimmer/farrier on board is part of the plan to succeed. Talk to your vet and trimmer about what exercise routines are safe for them and set up a management plan.
4. Maintain regular hoof trims
Whether you’re seeing early signs of laminitis or not, you need to make sure your horse’s feet are always properly and regularly trimmed and/or shod. Having a regular hoof trim/shoeing schedule will keep their feet healthier and stronger. Four to six weeks is the maximum time that you would want to go for both barefoot or shod horses before the hoof shape starts to overly distort.
For barefoot horses, the schedule can also be influenced by terrain the horse lives on. If the owner themselves trims or tweaks the feet in between trimmer/farrier visits and how often the horse is ridden and what terrain it is ridden on can all lenghten trim time schedule. Self-trimming will also impact on the regularity of the trimming schedule. Shod horses, on the other hand, need to be re-shod every four to six weeks maximum in most cases. So you need to make sure you have a regular appointment with your farrier/trimmer.
As a horse owner, you can also learn how to trim your horse’s hooves. There are available courses where you can be proficient in trimming and protecting their hooves. It’s always good to have a well-trained farrier or trimmer to come and supervise your work to make sure things are on track.
5. Do your own research
Doing your own research is very important. This will allow you to determine symptoms of laminitis or even other diseases. If you know how to recognise, manage and relieve early signs of laminitis, you can avoid it from happening or progressing too far.
EVERY horse and pony is different. As too are the ways they are kept, the soil they are on, the grasses and weeds they will come across, the exercise they get, the general overall health of the animal, weather and many, many other things that need to be taken into consideration that will affect your animals.
Optimally, low sugar native pasture grasses are the best for our horses, ponies and donkeys, but when these aren’t available, then sourcing the correct hay to suit your individual needs is vitally important.
As horse owners, it's our responsibility to educate ourselves so we can take care of our equines properly. There are a lot of published online resources about horses’ health and wellness that can guide you.
Stay up-to-date with all the research, study, products and treatments for laminitis, and get in touch with equine professionals if you can. Attending conferences can be another way to get updated with the latest research and information.
If you need assistance, don’t hesitate to ask your trimmer or farrier for help. Explain the circumstances and ask what they recommend when it comes to preventing laminitis. If your horse or pony is getting sore or has suddenly become laminitic, seek veterinary/farrier/trimmer assistance immediately. The quicker you get onto identifying and managing the laminitis, the better the results and less damage that will occur.
Always remember, prevention is always better than cure.