How To Prevent Laminitis in Horses
It’s one of the leading causes of lameness in the UK, but thanks to all the research that’s being done, our horses now stand a better chance of surviving a laminitis attack – and avoiding this deadly condition in the first place. Here, we bring you the latest information, research and advice so you can help keep your horse laminitis free.
Know Your Enemy
If you imagine the horse’s pedal bone as a trapeze artist and the 600 or so laminae as the ropes supporting him within the hoof capsule, laminitis attacks these ‘ropes’ causing them to weaken, fray and even snap in extreme cases. Because of this, the pedal bone can drop (known as ‘founder’) and rotate.
The result? Chronic pain and an animal who’s in a great deal of trouble unless swift first aid is applied to support the frog – and, by association, the pedal bone directly above it – and take the pressure off the delicate laminae to let them repair.
A horse who’s suffered an attack in the past is more prone to one in the future, and should the pedal bone drop, or one too many attacks leave the laminae damaged beyond repair, it’s serious news. So serious that experts from the veterinary, farriery, and equine nutritional worlds have invested huge amounts of time and effort trying to pinpoint what puts a horse at risk – and how an attack can be avoided in the first place.
The Biggest Culprit
Rising out from the mountains of laminitis-related research is one simple three -letter word that’s to blame for the vast majority of cases: fat.
For years it was thought to be an inert, ‘cuddly’ tissue, most often wrapped around native ponies’ waists, but research has shown the opposite to be true.
The experts now realise that fat is a toxic, inflammatory protein-producing reservoir, and these toxins circulate in the body, wreaking havoc. In men, the most dangerous type of fat is around the midriff as the proteins produced here damage the heart and blood vessels. But in horses, it’s the fat around the crest of the neck that’s the most dangerous, as the inflammatory proteins produced here prime the animal to develop laminitis.
However, any fat is capable of this. Put simply, a fat horse is predisposed to the condition and less of a trigger factor will be required to tip him into a laminitic state be that an excessive amount of simple sugars in the form of lush or frost-covered grass, the psychological stress of a yard move, excessive concussion to the foot, or some sort of hormonal disease usually Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) or Cushing’s.
It can be useful to explain laminitis in terms of a mountain peak – if your horse is already at the peak of the mountain because he’s fat, then if anything goes wrong he’s tipped over the edge into potential laminitis territory.
A buffer is needed, so if something goes wrong if he breaks out into a field of rich grass for example he only moves up the mountain towards the peak, rather than tipping straight over the edge.
How Can You Reduce The Risk Of Laminitis?
With laminitis so heavily linked to diet, it’s in the high-tech world of equine nutrition that the greatest leaps in research into this condition are emerging.
As spring approaches – typically thought to be the risk season for laminitis, although it’s now a year-round problem watching what you feed your horse or pony isn’t enough on its own to minimise the risk, you have to make lifestyle changes too.
In fact we now know that it isn’t what you feed today or tomorrow that increases the risk, but the way your horse has been managed from before he was even born.
Diabetes is now being diagnosed in horses. As a person, you don’t get it because you ate a doughnut last night, but because you’ve eaten doughnuts all your life, become overweight and changed the way your body is able to control glucose and insulin and it’s the same for our horses.
If your horse is comfortably cuddly for several years, his metabolism will start to change and he’ll lay down metabolically active fat. This increases his risk of becoming insulin resistant and this, in turn, increases the risk of laminitis as it changes blood flow to the foot and laminae, which eventually become weakened.
However, world opinion is now accepting that (similar to tying up) there is more than one cause of laminitis, and in order to combat this deadly disease and slow its massive increase, we need to consider the following facts:
EMS, similar to human diabetes, is on the increase and with it associated laminitis.
Horses and ponies with a fat score of more than 3.7 (on a scale of 0-5) are at greater risk of laminitis and foot-related problems.
It’s likely that poor nutrition in-utero results in the foal being born with insulin resistance – in other words, if you don’t feed mum correctly, or you breed from an overweight mare, research indicates the newborn is already set up with a predisposition for diseases associated with fatness.
If fed in excess, high fat diets predispose a pony to insulin resistance more than high sugar diets, and those with insulin resistance are at higher risk of laminitis..
Restricting a horse’s dry matter intake (namely forage) increases the risk of stable vices, colics and gastric ulcers, so it’s vital not to starve an overweight horse, but instead feed low-calorie forage in the form of hay that’s been soaked for 12 hours to get rid of the bulk of the calories.
Exercise is protective against insulin resistance, and experts recommend you ride your horse for at least half an hour a day, seven days a week, and get his heart rate up to 80 beats per minute.
Research has also shown that 66% of laminitis is pasture associated. but if it was simply grass that was the cause, all good-doers out at grass would get laminitis, when in fact only 7% are diagnosed. It might turn out, as research progresses, that something in grass might be the last straw for laminitis-susceptible animals – the final trigger. However, all the other factors need to be in place first. The biggest problem with grass is the excess calories it provides to horses and ponies in light work. Over time this results in comfortably cuddly horses, with the excess calories being laid down as fat.
It may be we never finish the final furlong in the race to ‘cure’ laminitis, in much the same way that the aim is to reduce the risk of heart attacks in humans rather than find a cure. However, as both experts and horse owners gain greater awareness of the condition, it feels as though we’re getting closer to a better understanding of laminitis and equine metabolic problems.
The take-home message has to be that fighting your horse’s ever-growing waistline is of huge importance in the battle against laminitis.
The vast majority of our horses were never designed to be fed the lush grass and high calorie meadow hay that’s in such plentiful supply these days, so we need to rethink their diets not with the spring ‘danger time’ in mind, but throughout the seasons, and see laminitis as a year-round problem that needs our constant attention.
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