Laminitis and Founder
Most horse owners have heard of these insidious conditions
and many have had personal experience themselves. In fact,
according to Dr. Chris Pollit, Director of the Australian
Equine Laminitis Research Unit at Queensland University,
chronic laminitis and founder are the 2 nd biggest killer
of horses after colic.
A common belief is that laminitis is a hoof problem but
in reality it is a whole body issue which shows up in the
hoof. It therefore makes sense that it is increasingly being
found among hoof care providers and holistic experts that
horses living a more natural life are much more resistant
to this condition. A horse with natural bare feet, allowed
24/7 turnout with little to no chemical usage and a strong
immune system due to a balanced diet are at the least risk.
By understanding the basics of laminitis and founder, what
triggers can be and a holistic approach to prevention and
treatment, owners are not at the total mercy of this dreaded
laminitis and founder are referred to in the same context;
however this is a wrong assumption. In order to get a better
grasp at this, one must understand some basic definitions.
- Laminae is the connective tissue which attaches the
hoof wall to the coffin bone.
- Laminitis is inflammation of the laminae
and this process follows certain stages in development.
is the initial phase within the first 2440 hours
(depending on the cause) in which inflammation
of the laminae is beginning.
||Acute stage is when foot pain is obvious due
to the major inflammation and pressure increase
within the hoof capsule.
||Chronic phase is when the laminae are beginning
to give way, releasing their hold on the coffin
- Founder occurs when the laminae can no longer hold
the coffin bone in place and it moves to an unnatural
position within the hoof.
||Rotation happens when only the toe
or tip of the coffin bone has rotated downward.
||Sinking happens when all the laminae release causing
the whole coffin bone to drop down.
||Mechanical founder usually happens over time due
to unnatural force on unbalanced hooves causing
tearing of the laminae.
Coffin bone penetration
Photo: Dr Tom Teskey
Signs of laminitis
and founder are usually easy to spot by an observant caretaker
and often but not always appear only in one or both front
feet. During the developmental state, the horse may appear
a little “off”, depressed and may show signs
of other issues such as a fever, slight dehydration or colic.
Pain begins during the acute phase and shifting of weight,
holding up the limb, lying down or the classical founder
stance may be observed. This stance is when the horse places
his front feet forward and rocks back on his hindend to
shift the weight off the painful toes. Often times, the
hoof will be warm and exaggerated pulses might be felt over
the fetlock. Once moving to the chronic and founder stage,
physical signs in the hoof will be observed such as flaring,
stretched white line, depression or softness near the coronary
band, ridges in the hoof wall, abnormal flat or bulging
sole and in some cases, penetration of the coffin bone through
the sole. Although this sounds gruesome it’s important
to know that just because a horse has a laminitic attack
does not always mean that the condition will move to full
founder. More about that later.
Although a trigger can often be determined, it’s usually
is just the “straw that breaks the camel’s back”
and the horse was a laminitic candidate to begin with. Later
in this article natural practices to overcome these cumulative
issues will be covered, but first some common triggers are
- Grain Overload is a fairly common trigger. Many have
heard of horses getting into a feed bin and ingesting
grain resulting in a high concentration of starch. This
causes an overpopulation of hindgut bacteria such as Streptococcus
bovis, Streptococcus equines and Lactobacillus spp which
not only lowers the ph of the intestines but also kills
off other good gut bacteria.
- Grass Founder is fairly common in ponies, minis and
easy keepers, those with either insulin resistant problems
and the hardy breeds such as Arabians and Mustangs as
well as Cushings horses, This is caused by the fructan
or sugar in the lush pasture grass and somewhat along
the same lines as grain overload in that the high sugar
causes an increase of the Streptococcus bacteria which
leads to digestive Coffin bone penetration upset and low
gut ph. During certain times of the year or growing conditions,
the fructan content can skyrocket.
Even some hays can have higher sugar content depending
on the type and growing conditions.
- Use of some medications such as some steroids, antibiotics
and even vaccinations can be a laminitis trigger.
- Gastrointestinal conditions such as colic, colitis or
enteritis can also be a factor.
- Other serious illness which may release toxins into
the body such as retained placenta or other serious infections
have a major link as a trigger.
- Metabolic issues involving glucose uptake problems
is yet another major trigger in laminitis cases. In horses
with glucose uptake problems, such as insulinresistant
and Cushing horses, the body can redirect the glucose
to major organs at the expense of the extremities and
hooves. Laminae starved of glucose are inferior and weak
making them more susceptible to inflammation and separation.
Care as a Preventative
As stated earlier, natural care principles can lower the
risk of laminitic attacks and therefore is a great prevention.
The first one is feeding a low starch/sugar diet. It is
this author’s belief that feeding diets high in starch
and sugar such as grain and molasses based feeds set a horse
up for insulin resistant problems in the future. A rice
bran base is an excellent choice to both help prevent the
issue and appropriate for insulin and Cushings horses. Keep
in mind that just because a label says the product is low
starch, does not mean this is true; you must read the ingredients,
looking for grains, molasses and artificial sweeteners.
Be knowledgeable about appropriate grazing times and elevated
sugar hays for high risk horses. Normally, the safest times
to graze are early morning and on overcast days. Also when
grass is in the growing stage of leaves and not seeded as
well as not under stress from drought or lack of proper
soil nutrients. High risk times are just the opposite with
late afternoon and evening being dangerous as well as stressed
plants from improper care. If possible, also stay away from
high fructan hays such as the warm season crops such as
Timothy, Orchard and Brome and stick with the cool season
grasses such as Bermuda and native prairie mixes. More great
information about this on www.safergrass.org.
It’s also very important that the horse is receiving
his needed vitamins and minerals to make sure he is able
to maintain a Naturally kept horses are less at risk. strong
immune system and healthy hooves.
Photo: Dr Tom Teskey
Ensure your horse
has balanced feet, preferably barefoot, which reduces the
chance a mild laminitic attack will progress to founder.
In a balanced healthy foot, there is no unnatural pressure
pulling at the hoof wall. To get a better idea of this principle,
place your fingernail on a hard surface and push down. The
pull you feel in the underlying tissues is the same as a
horse with long, overgrown hooves which stretch the sensitive
laminae. Creating a more natural environment is also
paramount as movement is crucial in building strong hooves
and body which will be more resistant to damage.
Cut out unnecessary chemical and pharmaceutical treatments.
As mentioned earlier, some medications and vaccinations
can be a trigger for a laminitic attack or can set the horse
up as a candidate because of toxins within the body. Frequent
overuse of chemical worming products can upset the good
gut bacteria raising the chance of a digestive upset.
Holistic Approach to Healing
The conventional and holistic approach to the care and healing
of a laminitic horse differs. Conventional medicine often
looks at this as a hoof problem and therefore concentrates
in “fixing” that hoof with corrective showing,
numerous drugs and stall confinement. A natural caregiver
understands this issue must be addressed as a whole, or
holistically. Therefore a healing regimen encompasses numerous
basic guiding principles, the first being “respect
nature’s power of healing”. Laminitis, although
a very emotional and stressful experience for both horse
and guardian, is not a death sentence. Most horses can return
to a normal life with the proper care. Although covering
the whole healing regimen is outside the scope of this article;
the following basic points are the most important.
Make an immediate diet change so it’s a support and
not a hindrance. Cut out all fresh grass, all grains, molasses,
overly processed concentrates, all legume hay (for now)
and switch to freechoice low sugar grass hay. If the horse
is not used to eating grass hay, take 46 days to change
over allowing the gut bacteria to balance. Proper vitamins
and minerals are paramount to healing and growing a new
healthy hoof, so ensure your horse is on vitamin/mineral
mix designed for grass hays, using rice bran and flax as
a carrier. Vitamin C is also beneficial for inflammation
and boosting the immune system; adding 24 Tbs of crushed
rose hips is an excellent source with also provides copper
which is important for hoof growth and is lacking in most
Creating a more natural environment is another important
step in healing as movement is crucial. Provide turnout
24/7, spreading hay in small piles to motivate the horse
to move. Avoid extremely soft footing or deep shavings but
do provide the horse a soft comfortable place to lay down
when he needs a break. Contrary to conventional advice,
lying down is not detrimental to the horse and instead gives
his painful feet a break. Once the horse begins to move
more comfortably, providing him a calm companion will allow
him mental as well as physical stimulation.
Remove the shoes if shod and find an experienced natural
hoof care provider to begin the trimming rehabilitation
process. Although this person will be your partner during
the process, it’s important the caregiver get educated
about the process. Request your hoof care provider explain
the basic trim principles and research the valuable barefoot
trimming resources available; one such website is www.barefoothorse.com
which is very user friendly and easy to understand for the
everyday horse owner.
of a foundered hoof. Notice healthy new growth at
4 month mark.
The initial trimming
goal is to help the horse feel more comfortable and to give
support to the coffin bone and laminae. This includes removing
flares toward the bottom of the hoof and excess hoof growth
which stresses the already weak laminae. Toes are shortened
(brought back) often to inside of the stretched white line
and the whole bottom of the hoof is rounded over reducing
any edges which exert undue pressure. The heels are lowered
according to the level of flaky sole which will change the
steepness of the hoof angle at the toe. Do not trim into
fresh sole. The sole at the toe area is normally left alone
for coffin bone support and frequent trimming, every 2-4
weeks is necessary for the initial rehabilitation process.
These are guiding principles but it must be remembered each
horse is an individual and the trim must be done accordingly.
In addition to the above care practices, numerous supportive
options are available. Because laminitis involves
pain and inflammation, an herbal solution such as Better
than Bute or BTB by EquiGlobal (www.emeraldvalleyusa.com)
can be beneficial without the side effects of conventional
NASIDS like Bute. Try to give only the minimum dose to be
effective for only as long as needed. Products which contain
Devil’s Claw should NOT be given to pregnant mare.
Homeopathy can also be beneficial in supporting the healing
process and the remedies are picked according to the horse’s
individual symptoms. If inexperienced in the use of homeopathy,
a professional should be consulted. Some common laminitis
- Aconitum napellus should be given immediately upon
symptoms or preferably following a known trigger.
- Belladonna is appropriate when the horse exhibits sweating,
fullbounding pulse and throbbing arteries. This can be
given together with the Aconitum
- Nux vom is beneficial in cases involving toxicity
- Calcarea fluorica can be given either in the beginning
of the chronic phase and may be able to reduce tissue
Potency and dosing
of remedies will depend on the horse’s symptom and
vital force level.
Chinese Herbalism is another great option and Dr. Joseph
Thomas, PhD (For Love of the Horse www.forloveofthehorse.com)
has created effective herbal solutions for the different
stages of development. Dr Thomas states, “Laminitis
follows a stage course so we must learn to “listen”
to our horse’s behavior and movement to understand
where each stage begins and ends. This path will take us
to effective choices for their care and treatment.”
There are other supportive options available depending on
the horse’s needs. Some horses benefit with the short
term use of Styrofoam pads which help support the coffin
bone from below. Available at www.hopeforsoundness.com.
Protective boots can also give some support and protection
for painful hooves to encourage movement but should not
be used constantly as the hoof must breathe and begin to
callous over. There are numerous boots on the market
and two common ones are the Sabresneaker and Boa Boot.
Laminitis can be a devastating condition but it does not
have to be a death sentence nor crippling for life. Most
often, this condition can be prevented in the first place
by adopting a more natural equine lifestyle, thereby reducing
the possible triggers or conditions which make the horse
a candidate. If the condition does strike, following a holistic
approach can result in a sound and rideable equine partner
in normally 69 months.
- Equine Laminitis in Australia ebook. Chris Pollit.
- The Relationship Between Natural Hoof Wall Growth and
Laminitis. Dr Joseph Thomas, PhD
- Laminitis Update. Pete Ramey (2005)
- Laminitis. Marjorie Smith
- The Treatment of Horses by Homeopathy. George Macleod
Lisa Ross Williams
is a natural horse care consultant, clinician, host of the
If Your Horse Could Talk show & former Senior Editor
of Equine Wellness Magazine. Lisa has immersed herself in
extensive research, hands-on experience, and attending many
clinics and seminars including natural horsemanship, hoof
care, massage & stretching, essential oils, animal communication,
iridology, and nutrition. She has completed the Basic Veterinary
Homeopathy course through the British Institute of Homeopathy
and working on her certification course in Iridology. Her
herd of six have been some of her best teachers.
Lisa has dedicated herself to educating horse owners to
a more natural approach through her company, If Your Horse
Could Talk, including her extensive website, www.naturalhorsetalk.com,
the show webcasts, consultations, and clinics.
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