All horses are susceptible to laminitis, a common condition that can cause devastating damage to an affected animal’s feet. Our Leatherstocking Veterinary Services team wants to help by providing information about this disease, and advice on decreasing your horse’s risk.

Laminitis in horses—the basics

Folded tissue layers (i.e., laminae) connect a horse’s coffin bone to their hoof wall, and inflammation of these tissues results in laminitis,which causes significant hoof pain. In severe cases, the laminae can deteriorate, and the hoof wall separates from the coffin bone. If the laminae are sufficiently compromised, the coffin bone can rotate downward and sink inside the hoof wall, causing extensive vascular injury. Laminitis most commonly affects the front feet, which carry the majority of the horse’s weight, but can also involve the hind feet. Draft horses, ponies, miniature horses, overweight horses, and horses who have had previous laminitic episodes are at higher risk. The exact mechanism that results in laminae damage is unknown, but causes and contributing factors include:

  • Endocrine diseases — Equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) and pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, or Cushing’s disease) are frequently associated with laminitis. 
  • Grain overload — High-starch grain consumption in large quantities can disrupt a horse’s hindgut microflora and cause serious consequences, including laminitis.
  • Eating lush grass — High starch and sugars found in lush pastures can cause laminitis.
  • Colic — Severe colic can result in laminitis.
  • Sepsis — Circulating toxins in the horse’s bloodstream can affect their feet, causing laminitis.
  • Excessive concussion — Exercising on hard surfaces, known as excessive concussion or road founder, can lead to laminitis.
  • Poor hoof conformation — Laminitis can result in a horse who has poor hoof conformation that is not trimmed and shoed appropriately.
  • Overweighting a limb — If a horse has an injured limb, the contralateral limb can be overweighted, resulting in laminitis.
  • Stress — Stress from factors such as a high-stress occupation, long-distance travel, and hospitalization can cause laminitis. 
  • Black walnuts — Exposure to black walnuts, especially in shavings used for bedding, can cause laminitis. 

If your horse experiences a grain overload or gets out on lush pasture, call Leatherstocking Veterinary Services as soon as possible, so we can help prevent laminitis and other serious complications.

Laminitic signs in horses

Laminitis signs vary depending on severity, but can include:

  • Lameness — Laminitis is painful, and horses will usually exhibit lameness that is especially prominent when turning in circles.
  • Shifting weight  — Affected horses will frequently shift their weight to help relieve the pain when standing.
  • Heat — Laminitic feet are warm or hot to the touch.
  • Increased digital pulses — Pulses in the feet, palpated over the sesamoid bones at the fetlock level, are increased.
  • Reluctance to walk forward — Laminitic horses may be hesitant to walk and look like they are walking on eggshells.
  • Sawhorse stance — Laminitic horses may stand with their front feet stretched in front and their hind feet under them, to alleviate pressure on their toes. 

Diagnosing the laminitic horse

When a horse is exhibiting laminitis signs, hoof testers are used to put pressure over the horse’s toe, because laminitic horses typically pull away from the pressure. Other diagnostics include X-rays, to determine if the coffin bone has rotated or sunk inside the hoof wall. 

Treating the laminitic horse

Treatment depends on the circumstances that precipitated the laminitic flare, but common therapies include:

  • Pain management — Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are typically used to help manage the horse’s pain.
  • Dietary restriction — Affected horses should not be fed grain or grass, and should be fed only grass hay, until directed otherwise by a veterinary professional.
  • Icing the feet — Icing the feet can help decrease inflammation and prevent tissue damage inside the hoof wall.
  • Soft ground — Stable the horse on soft ground such as sand or deep shavings. 
  • Anti-endotoxins — Medications may reduce bacterial toxicity.
  • Corrective trimming and shoeing — An experienced farrier can perform corrective trimming and shoeing.

Managing the laminitic horse

Horses who have had a laminitic episode are at higher risk for recurring flares. Management techniques to help prevent recurrence include:

  • Changing the diet — The horse’s diet can be changed to a low carbohydrate and low starch food. Their grass intake should be minimized, especially in the spring, and their hay can be soaked or steamed to remove sugars.
  • Scheduling frequent farrier visits — The horse should be trimmed every three to five weeks, and corrective shoeing may be necessary.
  • Treating the underlying issue — Any metabolic issues causing the laminitis should be treated.
  • Rechecking X-rays — Follow-up X-rays can be used to evaluate the horse’s progress.

Preventing laminitis in horses

Not all laminitic episodes can be prevented, but you can take steps to decrease your horse’s risk. These include:

  • Keeping your horse at a healthy weight — Overweight horses are at increased risk for laminitis. Use weight tapes and body conditioning scoring (BCS) to monitor your horse’s weight and keep them from gaining excess pounds. 
  • Scheduling regular farrier visits — Keep your horse’s feet trimmed regularly to ensure their hooves are properly balanced.
  • Limiting access to lush pasture — In the spring, gradually acclimate your horse to pasture, and keep them off lush pasture if they are at high risk for laminitis.
  • Keeping grain inaccessible — Avoid a grain overload by ensuring your horse can’t access grain bins.
  • Scheduling regular veterinary care — Ensure your horse sees a veterinarian at least once a year to be screened for conditions such as Cushing’s disease.

Laminitis is a serious issue, but you can take measures to decrease your horse’s risk. If your horse is acting sore-footed, contact our team at Leatherstocking Veterinary Services, so we can determine what is causing their pain and help alleviate their discomfort.