Back Country Horsemen of BC Robson Valley Chapter hosts workshop on laminitis

Birgit Stutz

Lots of separation, blood abscesses and stretched white line.
Lots of separation, blood abscesses and stretched white line.
Gary Schwartz photo
A small, but very keen group of horse people attended a presentation on laminitis and founder given by McBride farrier Gary Schwartz of Gary Schwartz Farrier Services on Wednesday evening, May 24.

The event was hosted by the Back Country Horsemen of BC Robson Valley Chapter as part of their ongoing series of educational workshops put on for their members.

Schwartz’s very informative presentation was based on recent research, mixed with stories, pictures, props, and real-life examples.

Schwartz started out by explaining that there is a difference between laminitis and founder.

“Laminitis is the inflammation of the sensitive laminae of the horse’s foot, the soft tissue structures directly under the horny wall of the hoof that attach the coffin bone to the inside of the hoof wall, and which keeps the coffin bone suspended within the hoof capsule,” he explained.

Distorted hoof growth.
Distorted hoof growth.
Gary Schwartz photo
“Inflammation of the laminar tissue creates pressure between the two solid structures, the hoof and the coffin bone, and the pressure from the swollen tissues surrounding the nerves causes severe pain. Blood flow to the laminae is decreased and may lead to death of the laminar tissue. The white line of the horse’s foot may get distended and filled with blood pockets, which may start to leak. If inflammation of the laminae is severe and/or prolonged, the laminae begin to weaken and stretch or even break, leading to instability of the coffin bone. The coffin bone may separate from the hoof wall and rotate, and in severe cases, is pulled downward by the deep digital flexor tendon, eventually protruding through the sole of the hoof. The rotation or sinking of the coffin bone in the hoof as a result of the swollen tissue pushing the hoof apart from the bone and the horse’s body weight pulling the bone and hoof apart due to the weakened laminar connection is called founder.”

Schwartz went on to say that both laminitis and founder can have an acute or chronic phase.

“Laminitis doesn’t always lead to founder, however, if not treated promptly it can cause irreparable damage to the horse’s foot. Laminitis is a debilitating condition, often rendering horses unrideable, and in very severe cases can be fatal. Laminitis is the second biggest killer of horses after colic. Horses that have experienced an episode of laminitis are more prone to future episodes.”

Causes of laminitis

While a lot of horse owners are aware of the danger of laminitis caused by lush grass, especially in the springtime, fall pastures pose a risk as well.

“Basically any time rainfall, sunlight and daytime temperatures are sufficient to stimulate rapid plant growth,” Schwartz said.

This is due to the increase in soluble carbohydrates (simple sugars and starches that are broken down by the bacteria in the horse’s large intestine) in grasses and clovers, which causes metabolic changes in the horse’s body that result in altered blood flow to the laminae of the foot. Schwartz said horses with equine metabolic syndrome or Cushing’s disease are more prone to developing laminitis.

While the main cause of laminitis is overfeeding grass and grain, other causes of laminitis include obesity, retained placenta in post-foaling mares, trauma resulting from excess work on hard ground (road founder), or from aggressive hoof trimming. Lameness which prevents weight bearing in one leg may lead to laminitis in another supporting leg. Stress can change a horse’s gut flora, leading to endotoxemia, a condition in which damaging bacterial toxins get into the blood stream and cause systemic shock, which can then cause laminitis.

Acute symptoms of laminitis

Schwartz said while in many cases only the front feet are affected, in some cases all four feet may be affected, and in rare cases only the horse’s hind feet.

“Horses affected with laminitis are reluctant to move and are often camped out, meaning they adopt a ‘sawhorse’ stance, rocking their weight back off the more badly affected front feet onto their hind feet,” he said.

“Laminitic horses will often resist lifting a foot due to the intense pain and will often lie down to take the pressure off their feet. There is often pain when applying pressure from hoof testers, especially in the toe area.”

The hoof wall and coronary band - the soft tissue around the top of the hoof - are often warm to touch, and the digital pulse at the back of the horse’s fetlock is prominent and increased (pounding). Because of the severe pain, laminitic horses often have increased respiratory rate and show anxiety and trembling.

Chronic symptoms of laminitis

Schwartz said if the inflammation of the sensitive laminae has been present for some time, structural changes in the horse’s feet will become visible.

“One indication of past bouts of laminitis are so-called ‘founder rings’ on the surface of affected hooves. The hoof wall may also take on a dish shape with long toes, and in extreme cases, the toes may even curl up. If the coffin bone has rotated in the hoof, there will be a bulge in the sole corresponding to the rotated bone. Horses with chronic laminitis also have restricted movement in their front legs and tend to place more weight on their back legs.”

Schwartz stressed to call the vet immediately if laminitis is suspected.

“Early diagnosis and an aggressive approach to treatment are key to a successful outcome,” he said.

“Removing the cause of the condition is vital. If your horse has developed laminitis because of overfeeding, remove the feed immediately. Do not leave the horse on pasture. Anti-inflammatory and pain medication prescribed by your vet are often the cornerstone of therapy, as are cold therapy, for example soaking the horse’s foot in ice water or applying ice packs. Proper hoof care is also vital, as is ongoing dietary management.”

While laminitis can be managed, there is no cure, so prevention is of utmost importance, Schwartz emphasized.

“Feed a balanced ration that is appropriate for your horse’s activity level, age and metabolic type. Managing your horse’s weight and recognizing when your horse is overweight is key. Changes in diet and exercise should be made gradually in order to prevent stress for your horse’s system. Limit access to lush pastures especially in the spring and early summer, and allow your horse to graze in the early morning when the sugars in the grass are low, or at dawn. On sunny days, fructan levels in the grass gradually rise during the morning, peaking around noon, then gradually decline and are lowest just before dawn. Turnout on a dry lot or depleted pasture is also helpful. Exercise is of utmost importance as it increases metabolism and mobilizes fat stores. Another option is to use a grazing muzzle when turning a laminitis-prone horse out.”

Thank you Gary for a very educational presentation!

For more information on laminitis, visit Safergrass.org.