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Laminitis Alert

Copyright: ©Lingfield Correspondence

According to many vets, 6 years ago and every year since then, the Spring right through to early Autumn in 2012, are some of the worst many vets have encountered for call outs related to Laminitis.

This is a disease of the hoof and foot.  Like our fingernails the hoof wall is made up of layers of hard material and the disease literally means the laminate layers are quickly affected and finally come away from the inside of the foot.  The loss of support for the inside mechanism of the hoof means the bone in the middle of the foot is no longer supported and rotates causing horrendous pain.

Horse management of those who get slightly over their suitable weight can be a real and difficult problem for some owners and carers. Often the horse or pony is hardly overweight at all and looks good – or so it seems to the owner.  Today we more often see slightly overweight and fat horses than we ever ever did in the past. There are a a good number of reasons for this – we will however, leave that sort of discussion to another article.

The Lingfield Instructor Group often receive emails from equine studies students asking about handling their laminitic horse or pony and many ask about Laminitis in the winter months which is now also quite common.  Some are also asking what to do about their grazing – should they let horses and ponies graze or not – when is the best time for grazing etc. etc.. People are aware that with lovely Spring grass their horse or pony will start to get a little too ’round’ and then later, in Summer months it just continues to be a problem.  Few however, seem to be aware that the problem continues through to Autumn and Winter too.

It used to be thought that ponies were more at risk of getting laminitis but in fact, we now all realise, horses which are regularly seen to be a little too round are just as likely come down with it.

Make no mistake, it is a crippling painful disease for horse or pony.

Weighing up your problem

A horse carrying an little more weight than he or she should – although this is usually an unintentional happening by the owner, can so very quickly come down with Laminitis owing no only to the weight but to two other underlying issues as well (see later).  As we said – although this used to be quite a rare disease, it is now sadly all too common.

In winter the grass gets stressed when it is frosty – that means it changes in substance and can easily cause laminitis.  If your horse is well covered – i.e not thin, then you must be careful in Winter as well as in Spring, Summer and Autumn..  Not only that it is now more common for Laminitis all year round but it is also prevalent as a result of other ailments such as Cushings disease which tends to affect older more mature animals.

Many many people keep their horses just a little too well covered without realising the dangers. 

This means their horse or pony is at risk of this dreadfully painful disease.  Take care not to feed too much hard feed or hay or allow too much grass intake – only feed what is necessary and do NOT overfeed.  You could be killing with kindness.

Death sentence

It is a death sentence for many – literally. It happens all too quickly. Look at your horse today. You must decide whether it is at a good weight. If that is the case, can it cope with just a bit more weight without becoming overweight – because that is exactly what is going to happen if you allow the weight to stay on now

What is Laminitis?

The inside of the foot is compromised (damaged). In layman’s language that means it is basically a problem with the internal parts of the hoof which hold the bone in the foot in place. The internal part of the hoof or foot become inflamed.

The horse needs to be only a little overweight for these internal parts to become affected and prone to inflammation.

What happens when the internal parts of the hoof are inflamed?

If the inflammation continues – because of weight, the bone is no longer able to be supported. When this happens because the structure of the internal parts of the foot have literally broken down, the bone itself drops through to the sole of the foot.

  • This physical change can happen remarkably quickly.

How long does it take to affect my horse?

Sometimes if the problem is not spotted immediately. When the symptoms are showing as serious and sudden in onset.

  • It can be within a matter of 24 hours that the bone drops.

It seems unbelievably quick but that is what sometimes happens. If therefore, you think there is a problem, it is vital to get the vet out quickly. By quickly, I mean as an emergency call out that very day.

Pain comparisons

The pain caused is unimaginable to most of us. Just try to imagine yourself, and the pain you would feel, if you closed your finger tips in a heavy car door. Severely enough to crush the bones in your fingers.

  • Now imagine having to support the whole weight of your body on the tips of those fingers all day long –
  • pressing down on those bruised and crushed fingers would be absolute and unbelievable agony.

This is what the poor Laminitic horse has to do and cope with. Laminitis is horrendously painful. It is so it is unkind to allow your horse to be put in a position where it might succumb. Many people keep their horses in for some of the day in an attempt to stop them eating so much grass. However there are other and far better and more natural ways to help reduce the grass intake.

We mentioned two other underlying causes – what are they?

We have taken the following information (shown in italics) directly from the BHS website – it is therefore the copyright of the BHS and we thank them for the use of this piece.

“Laminitis caused by an underlying hormonal (endocrine) condition:  You keep two ponies together in a field and one develops laminitis and the other doesn’t- why is one susceptible to laminitis and the other isn’t? Traditionally it was thought that laminitis was caused by horses having access to lush pasture but this doesn’t explain why some horses develop the condition and others do not. Although grass intake can be a triggering factor it is now understood that 90% of laminitis cases are caused by an underlying hormonal condition.5

Pony with Laminitis

Figure 1: The classic laminitic stance. Photo courtesy of The Royal Veterinary College.

Hyperinsulinaemia (too much insulin in the body caused by insulin resistance) is the common direct trigger to the development of laminitis and is usually in association with the horse having one or both of two common hormonal conditions20 ; Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) commonly known as Cushings Disease. 

Laminitis caused by inflammatory disease

It has been found that horses diagnosed with toxaemia (‘blood poisoning’) as a result of developing pneumonia, colitis (diarrhoea), grain overload or retained placenta (afterbirth) are at an increased risk of developing laminitis10.

An on-going concern that laminitis could be caused by corticosteroid administration (such as drugs to treat Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO) and musculoskeletal conditions) has recently been investigated. A study11 was conducted that concluded that there is no evidence to support that administration of therapeutic systemic corticosteroids can cause the development of laminitis in healthy horses. Another study12 also found that treatment with oral prednisolone (a type of corticosteroid usually used to treat RAO) did not increase the risk of laminitis. They also found a weak association between administrating multiple doses of corticosteroids and the development of laminitis in adult horses with an underlying endocrine disease.

3. Laminitis caused by mechanical concussive overloading 

Although rare, laminitis can be caused by excessive concussion of the feet, such as excessive roadwork, or by the overloading of one limb. An example of this was with the famous American racehorse Barbaro. Barbaro was the 2006 winner of the Kentucky Derby who sadly fractured his right hind leg in three places two weeks later. Barbaro’s fractured leg healed but he developed laminitis in his supporting left hind leg with resulted in him having to be euthanised13 .”


“There are two general stages of laminitis; acute (sudden onset) and chronic (long term) and you may not see all of these signs. Some signs are very subtle and can be mistaken for other lameness issues”

What should I do?

First and foremost it is helpful – if not vital – to reduce the amount of grass itself that you have in the field or paddock.


How do I reduce the amount of grass to prevent the intake of too much grass?


  • Mow it!

Quite simple really, isn’t it?

Get that lawnmower out! It might seem a bit mad, but the easiest thing to do is to get the lawn mower out and mow it – that’s right – go and mow the field!

  • For some reason people don’t ever think of simply mowing their grazing and yet it is one of the most simple ways to reduce the grass.

It might need doing reasonably regularly if your four legged friends are to remain slimline. You MUST however, use a grass collector on the mower – but with the wheelbarrow nearby you can empty it regularly as you mow. Now some are able to use a small garden tractor mower for this but not everyone is so lucky. You might have to use your ordinary garden mower.

Mowing in company

If you can’t face doing it alone, try and get some help with it. Your partner or friends might be up for this one if you offer something in the way of a bit of light relief a few bottles or cans of beer or a glass or two of wine.

Be inventive with your mowing

How about getting a few friends together and have a Beer/Pimm’s mowing party followed by a BBQ in the finally freshly mown field.

If it is a really big field, could you turn your mowing party into a charity event? What about lawnmower races?

A summer long tournament would mean you could have events once a week until the final at the end of the main growing season.

Could you organise a sponsored mow? Maybe two people at a time could race against the clock to mow a strip or two of the field to raise money for a horse charity. If you used a local charity it might encourage even the non horsey people to join in.

Whilst others could at the same time race against the clock to collect and empty the collected grass in wheelbarrows. With a little imagination you could make it a fun day out for all the family and the kids could bring their friends too.

More Horses

The next best thing to help beat laminitis, is to get more horses on the field. The more who are there to eat it the less there is for everyone. Instead of the horses being in separate fields try to introduce more into the same field.

Mixed Grazing

Another alternative is to ask a local farmer if you might borrow a few sheep to graze in with the horse/s. This would have a double whammy effect too. Sheep eat weeds that horses leave alone so you would improve your grazing at the same time.

Strip grazing

Next is some form of strip grazing. Historically, most people have done this by putting an electric fence line straight across the field, they then move it every couple of days or so further up the field. The problem with this is that you usually fence off the water trough in the process. This method requires buckets of water to be taken up to the strip every day which so often get knocked over unless slotted into old car tyres. Strip grazing in this fashion also means that invariably the horse has less area to move around in so doesn’t walk very much. The result of this is that they are getting less exercise, so are not working off any food they are eating.

Be inventive with your strip of grazing

Try being more inventive with your electric fencing. You may need a little more fencing this way, but it works and makes life a whole lot more interesting for the horse too.  This type of grazing is actually far more natural.  It mimics life in the wild – they graze and have to walk a good way to water.

All of these methods will mean your horses walk that bit further every day too – and that means more exercise so more weight will be  burned off.  Don’t just read this – really try to introduce it at your yard.

Instead of straight lines across your field why not fence off a small square shaped section in one corner or even towards the middle with an extension down to the water trough – rather like a wide passage way. This means the horse has to walk to reach water so works off a bit of food each time.

The square can be moved over to the side and around the field. Yet it is still possible to arrange a passage way to the trough even when the square is in the opposite corner. Another way to do this is to form an inside fence with your electric fencing all around the field a couple of meters inside the perimeter. This way the horse once more has access to the water trough at all times and has to walk part of the perimeter of the field to reach it.

There are other shapes which might use less fencing. Try a simple U shape from the trough out into the field. You can change the shape of the U regularly yet still keep the water trough at one end. A U shape could retain the water trough as its base, and gradually move across the field in the shape of an opening fan.

Alternatives to hay in the stable

If the horse comes in and has hay in his/her stable then you can always substitute some of the hay with oat or barley straw. If they are older they may struggle with chewing it though so you might need to ensure the teeth are in good condition and have them rasped if necessary.

If however, the straw is not being digested properly it could cause digestive problems such as colic. Check their droppings to make sure there are no recognisable pieces of straw which have not been digested properly. Soak the food to make it easier to eat. Change to one of the proprietary chopped hay/straw feeds suitable for older horses if this is the case. Soaking hay will reduce the nutritional content whilst still providing bulk fibre food so this is useful if they have to stand in – but never soak for over long and always change the water.  It is suspected that respiratory infections are increased if water is re-used.

Calories or Carbs

During Spring the average leisure horse is getting loads of calories from the grass so probably doesn’t need any hard feed at all. In fact if you ARE giving hard feed make sure it isn’t a high energy one. If you really MUST feed calories – it is perhaps because they are working hard – e.g. 2 hours schooling & jumping etc every day. Only if they are working that hard would you need to feed those calories – unless they have been ill and the vet suggested it. If not working that hard change to a feed which will keep them laid back and full of fibre – not one which is full of those lovely bits and bobs of energy giving cereals.


Next on the list of keeping weight down is exercise. Now most of us must have heard that we should exercise and that walking a certain length or amount of time every day helps keep our weight down. Why not consider this for your horse.

Equine Powerwalking

You may also have heard of powerwalking to get fit. This, surprisingly is also something the horse needs too. It turns out that it isn’t trotting or cantering which will keep the weight down – (that is going to use up carbohydrates, but it is calories we need to reduce). It seems that it is walking we need to get them to do – and briskly at that. Think of it as their equine powerwalk. If you want to get a bit fitter yourself you can lead the horse and literally do a bit of power walking as you do.

What is Powerwalking

Powerwalking for humans does not mean just walking faster though. To do it properly you need to keep your elbows bent and working in the same way as they would if you were running and moving those elbows backwards and forwards as you walk. Think of holding a wine glass in each hand as you do this (an empty one!). Don’t take big long strides. Forget about your legs and work on pumping your arms back and forth. The heart rate goes up and the calories get burned up more quickly.

Try it just for a few yards as you walk out to bring your horse in from the field tomorrow and you will see how it might help. Instead of hacking out and doing lots of trots and canters in an attempt to get the weight off your horse/s, think more about working in walk – but walking briskly. Ride them in a brisk walk in the school every day before going out on a brisk walking hack. Alternatively lead them around the school or field if you can’t get out. It is a fantastic time to do some ground work and exercises with your horse.

Be inventive again – this time with your exercises

Whether you are riding in the school or leading, make it interesting – put down some cones to bend in and out of. Make a few pole shapes to walk over and between – use it as an exercise in bending and suppling. It is also an excellent time to bond with your horse.

Use this time well to the benefit both of you. You can kill more than one bird with these exercises.

Paula Clements is Course Director with Lingfield Correspondence provider of equine home study courses. As a member of the Lingfield Instructor Group Paula is one of 5 professionally qualified coaches who have produced equine home study courses.
Paula’s love of horses and genuine interest in helping people shines through when you contact her.

Please feel free to drop her an email if you have any questions or queries about equine studies, are anxious or need help with a horse related problem of your own.

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