Laminitis & Founder are both terms that refer to rotation of the coffin bone and/or swelling and inflammation of the hoof capsule. The common cause of this disease is excess sugar in the diet.
Because horses are classified as non-ruminant herbivores, their digestive tract is adapted to digesting small, high fiber meals. The horse digests its food through continuous fermentation in the cecum and colon. Horses have no gall bladder to aid in digestion of food like humans. The gall bladder dumps digestive fluids into the stomach to help breakdown food faster. That means the horse may have difficulty completely and properly digesting large meals of hay and grains. When the digestive tract is overloaded and becomes out of naturally intended balance, that is when laminitis and other hoof ailments can occur.
So when the horse has too large a meal it could prevent the food from being digested completely. The undigested or poorly digested food can then become toxic. The toxins from poor digestion can then leach into the blood stream via the intestines and flow to the lowest circulatory point of the horse, the hoof. The toxins can then affect the MMP’s which are small gates that govern blood flow to the hoof. The MMP’s function is to regulate the temperature in the hoof, so that it does not become too hot or too cold. This situation will probably result in restricting blood flow and nutrients to the white line. As the white line atrophies it begins to cease holding the outer hoof to the hoof capsule. Now the horse begins to have a serious hoof and health problem.
To help understanding the digestion of a horse I would like to use the metaphor of making wine. Feeding a horse is like making a fine wine (Wine is made from fermenting grapes, horses ferment their food as part of the digestive process). Three things need to be in balance in the digestive system:
If any of those three get out of balance you get vinegar, or in this case, toxins. Of course the digestive system and nutritional needs of a horse are little more complex than that, but that is the mindset you need when you are feeding your horse. If you are in doubt or confused about feeding your horse properly consult your veterinarian.
A final thought on the mindset to feeding your horse. A horse in the wild will naturally take a bite of low quality grass and then takes several steps, traveling up to 20 miles a day. This is perfect for the horses digestion. A small
amount food is introduced to the digestive system and the walking stimulates digestion. A horse that is domesticated eats the best grass, hay and concentrate feed money and man can produce. This horse usually gets the food delivered and is confined to a small paddock. That procedure is just opposite to their millions of years of evolution. We have a tendency to feed a horse like a human, not like a horse. Numerous small meals over a long span of time is the best feeding strategy for the horse.
I put this type of hoof affliction into three categories based on their degree of severity:
Sub-Clinical Laminitis: This condition is defined when you start to see or feel a slight change in the hoof. The horse may walk just a bit more gingerly. Slight heat in the hoof may be noticed, or possible digital pulse throbbing. This is best stage to notice and treat the horse with the minimal amount of pain and suffering to the horse.
Treatment: The best treatment is to cool the feet using ice or cool water. The cause must be identified and changes must be incorporated immediately. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) may be used to reduce swelling and pain. Also try to get the horse to soft ground such as sand or a stall filled with a thick layer of bedding.
Laminitis: This condition is very serious and is defined when the horse starts to stand with his feet forward. The horse will attempt to shift his weight to his heels. Usually you will notice it in the front feet first because the horse can “rest” the back feet and alternate those feet. A horse carries 60% of his weight on the front feet and no real way to “rest” his front feet. Heat in the feet is very obvious.
Digital pulse throbbing will be very easy to locate. The horse will probably walk very stiffly. The horse may lay down more than usual in order relieve the pain in his feet.
Treatment: You need to get a veterinarian involved as soon as possible. The sooner you start the treatment or change the cause the better chance of recovery.
Founder: This condition is extremely serious and is defined when the coffin bone begins to rotate through the sole of the hoof. The horse may have sores on its hip from laying down to relieve the pain. Early signs of seedy toe may be noticed. There may be blood traces in the white line. The horse’s lower back may be constantly curled upward. The front and back feet will be far forward in the classic founder stance. The horse will walk with great difficulty. There are several types of founder/laminitis. Grass founder and grain founder can both be linked to carbohydrate overload or to much sugar in their diet. Road founder happens when a horse is ridden on hard surfaces over long periods of time. Foal founder happens when the mare doesn’t release the placenta upon completion of foaling.
Treatment: You need to get a veterinarian involved as soon as possible. A foundered horse may never fully recover, they will usually have good days and bad days. The treatment can be expensive and time consuming. Horses do not die from laminitis or founder, they are put to sleep because the level of constant suffering can be excruciating. Start the treatment as soon as possible.
Founder/laminitis is usually preventable in most cases. You must be vigilant in monitoring the horse’s weight, eating habits and hoof health.
Laminitis can be treated more successfully if treated early. Every horseman should acquaint themselves with the diagnosis and first aid treatment of this disease.