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The dreaded L-word… Laminitis

The dreaded L-word can affect your horse or pony at any time of the year, although cases are more common in the spring when the grass gets going. Although research in the past couple of decades has revealed more understanding of this complex condition, there is still much to learn. Until then, there are practical management strategies to reduce its risk, but no guarantee. 

What is laminitis and who gets it? 

Laminitis is a failure of the lamellae that hold the horse’s pedal (foot) bone in the hoof capsule. The interlinking leaves of tissue that are usually tightly held together lose their bond and pedal bone becomes unstable. This instability can range from a small undetectable movement in the hoof capsule all the way to a sinking and rotating that result in the bone dropping through the sole of the foot. The condition is painful for the horse due to both the tissue damage and the pressure in the hoof capsule and many cases are euthanized due to uncontrollable pain rather than a failure of healing or suchlike. After their first bout, horses are more prone to the condition, and it can become a chronic problem. 

What causes laminitis?

There are a number of different things that can cause laminitis, including endocrine disorders (which include PPID, or Cushing’s syndrome and insulin dysregulation), starch overload, toxicity, some medications, and excessive weight bearing. Insulin dysregulation is believed to be a major contributing cause in chronic laminitis, although further research is necessary before we understand the actual physiological mechanisms involved.  

How do you manage a laminitis-prone horse or pony?

There is no treatment for laminitis that guarantees it is avoided and there is large variation in individuals. There are, however, certain guidelines that seem to reduce its risk so they worth paying attention to. The main two are:

1. Avoiding obesity: Monitor your horse or pony carefully and regularly for their body fat levels. Ask your vet to comment too, because research has shown that many owners cannot recognise a body fat level that may be associated with an increased risk of laminitis. You can condition score or simply feel for fat. Maintain a condition score of 4 or under on the 1-9 scale, and if you are feeling for fat you should be able to feel the ribs easily (with a light touch) and feel no fatty pads behind the shoulders, on either side of the tail head or on the crest of the neck (which should feel soft). 

2. Limiting grass and WSC-rich forage intake: Grass oversupplies energy (calories) to most horses during spring to autumn, unless they are in heavy work. It’s rich in WSC which includes sugar, and that along with the good energy level and good palatability (which means it’s easily over-eaten), means it spells disaster for horses and ponies prone to laminitis. Limit with strip grazing, grazing muzzles, over-grazing and even zero-grazing, if necessary. Hay and haylage can vary widely in energy and WSC, so ideally analyse and don’t assume meadow hay is safe! Meadow hays can contain very high WSC, and well-made haylage can be lower (although tends to be higher in energy, so watch out for weight gain). Timothy hay tends to be safer, with lower WSC and energy). Choose forage carefully and soak hay for 10-12 hours to reduce WSC and energy, if in doubt.

In conclusion:

  • Avoid obesity and maintain a lean body condition
  • Be aware of access to grass and limit it for any animal with any past history and any horse or pony who is too fat
  • Choose appropriate forage assessing WSC and energy content
  • Monitor any horse or pony who is out of their usual regular work routine carefully
  • Feed a well-balanced diet
  • Exercise regularly if possible
  • Check all horses and ponies carefully and regularly
  • Call your vet if in any doubt
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