I think every year and this year in particular, after the obnoxious winter we had, the arrival of spring is eagerly anticipated. Finally, spring has arrived! It's beginning may be a bit lackluster but we can look forward to warmer weather, longer days, blooming flowers and hopefully some great trail rides! Unfortunately, it is also the time of year our equine friends are most likely to be afflicted with laminitis and founder.
As a farrier, who has applied the trade for many years, I have been privileged to work on some magnificent, beautiful and truly talented horses and have been lucky enough to meet some people who are the salt of the earth! But, life seems to balance the good with the bad and as a farrier, I have seen some things that I would rather not have. The sight of a horse laying on it's side, sores on its body from laying down too much and the coffin bone (the very bottom bone in the equine hoof) protruding through the sole of the hoof, is one that gets burned into a person's memory.
In many cases, this direful end to a horses life is avoidable with just a bit of preventative care, a little knowledge, and quality horse care practices.
Laminitis is defined as inflammation of the sensitive laminae. This inner, sensitive laminae is what connects and suspends the coffin bone within the hoof capsule. The inflammation is the result of a circulatory problem in the hoof created when a part of the hoof's circulatory system known as AVAs (Arterio Venous Anastomoses) malfunctions. The AVA's normal function is to help control the temperature of the hoof. In a laminitic state, the AVA's allow the blood flow to race through the main arteries and veins, at the cost of properly supplying the smaller capillaries which provide nutrients and oxygen to the sensitive laminae. If the situation is not rectified, the sensitive laminae begins to die and the connection it provides between the coffin bone and the hoof wall fails, resulting in a sinking or rotating coffin bone. Founder is the term applied to the latter stage.
What triggers laminitis: a whole gauntlet of things! An attempt at a full listing of triggers would be beyond the scope and intent of this writing, but let's look at some of the more common ones.
Trauma: I think when most of us think of trauma to the hoof we think of impact. Running on pavement or over large rocks. But, there are several other types of trauma the hoof can be force to endure. Too long a hoof (especially too long of a toe) produces a mechanically created trauma every time the horse takes a step. An overweight horse creates additional trauma to the hoof as compare to a horse of the appropriate weight. Over paring of the sole and frog and/or shortening the hoof wall excessively all can create a situation where the sensitive structures of the foot are subject to trauma.
Diet:Each horse has it's own metabolism, sugar and protein tolerances. Each of these things can directly or indirectly play a roll in laminitis
Illnesses: Infections, viruses and a number of systemic illnesses can all act as triggers. It is also important to remember each time a horse experiences laminitis, the smaller capillaries which serve the sensitive laminae are, to a certain degree, compromised. The accumulative affect of multiple bouts of laminitis has the potential to turn into an acute case.
Poisons: From products that we use to clear vegetation from our fence line to certain leaves that fall into our horses paddocks, horses can find a variety of ways to ingest poisons. I would put many steroidal drugs in this category as well
Laminitis has the potential to be a life threatening condition. It is a medical emergency. For those a fore mentioned reasons, I think it is important for every owner to recognize the symptoms of laminitis. Laminitis is usually bilateral (meaning affecting both sides) though often one hoof my be more affected. This can make it difficult to see the lameness. The first thing the horse owner is likely to see is the animal simply doesn't seem to move as much. Front feet are generally affected more than hind. If the front feet are the primary source of lameness the horse will stand rocked back on it's hind end, it's front feet pushed out forward and it's weight will be on it's heels. As the horse walks, it's hoof will land noticeably heel first. If the horse is ask to turn tightly on it's haunches, the horse will be hesitant to cross one front foot over the other and will “shuffle” the front feet around the turn. If all four feet are affected the horse's stance will be with it's feet drawn up under it (think of a circus elephant standing on a stool).
The affected hooves will be warm and there will be a noticeable pulse just below the fetlock.
If you see these symptoms, call your veterinarian and your farrier.
So, what can we do to minimize the chance our equine friend will have to endure the pain of laminitis? The first is the most obvious. Provide your horse with quality farrier care on a regular basis. If you can provide that yourself, great! Make sure you track the care on a calendar. If you
have to hire a farrier, have a conversation with them. Ask them their philosophy of farrier science, where they learned it, what has shaped it along the way and how long they have been applying it. A competent farrier should be able to verbalize their objectives concerning how they set up your horses feet.
Maintain your horse at the proper weight. Get a weight tape! Horse owner's have a tendency to not notice subtle changes in their horses weight. As a farrier, it will often be eight weeks between times I see an animal. In that time the horse's weight may have change by over a hundred pounds and the owner my very well not have noticed.
Know your horse! Does it have a history of laminitis? Is it sugar intolerant? Is it such an easy keeper it can get fat living in a bare paddock? If so, manage it. Especially in the springtime, limit their grazing to early morning hours, as the grass has less sugar content then. Some horses that have endured chronic laminitis must live in a dry lot. Many require their hay to be soaked (to wash out as much sugar as possible) Utilize a large round pen or an arena for exercise. That sounds like a sad life for the horse, but it is a matter of life or death for them.
Those thing listed above in the illness section are the most frustrating triggers. If the trigger itself is not adequately dealt with how we treat the founder becomes pretty much a mute point with a poor prognosis.
The first step in treating laminitis is eliminating the trigger that started it. So, do your horse, yourself and me a favor. Be proactive! Deal with potential triggers of laminitis before they cause your equine friend a serious problem and you a lot of worry and money.
See you down the trail, Jeff Doane