After months of frozen ground or ankle-deep mud, spring is a welcome sight. Warmer weather and more daylight hours mean your horse can enjoy more turnout, but beware the hidden danger lurking in that lush pasture – an increased risk of laminitis.
Laminitis is the inflammation and weakening of the laminae – folds of tissue that bind your horse’s pedal bone to the inside of his hoof wall. Because the hoof wall can’t expand to accommodate the swelling, laminitis causes debilitating pain. In some cases, the pedal bone can even detach from the hoof wall and either rotate or sink towards your horse’s sole. This can cause severe lameness, recurring abscesses and long-term changes to the hoof’s structure that are often terminal.
Causes of laminitis
Previously believed to be a condition in its own right, we now know that the majority of laminitis cases are actually a symptom of an underlying endocrine problem, such as equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) or pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, formerly known as Cushing’s disease). These conditions cause the body to have an abnormal reaction to non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs), leading to an inflammatory response and triggering laminitis.
Some horses are genetically predisposed to the metabolic disorders that cause laminitis, however, there are things you can do to help reduce the risk to your horse…
- keep him at a healthy weight – use body condition scoring and a weightape to track his progress
- feed a diet low in sugar and starch – choose a feeds that are lower than 12% NSC and restrict his grass intake
- balance his diet with a feed balancer or vitamin and mineral supplement – you can buy ones specifically formulated for horses who need a low-calorie diet
- regular exercise will not only aid weight loss, but also improve insulin sensitivity – if you don’t have time to ride every day, try lungeing, long-reining or a brisk in-hand walk
Laminitis is classed into two different types…
- acute refers to the early stags of the disease where the clinical signs are evident, but the pedal bone hasn’t become detached
- chronic laminitis is when the pedal bone rotates or sinks, and the effects of this can be severe and long-term
Keep off the grass
Not only is lush spring grass full of calories, but it also contains high quantities of NSCs. This means that restricting your horse’s access to fresh grass is one of the most effective ways of reducing the risk of laminitis, particularly if he’s already overweight. Using strip grazing or a track system are effective methods, and you can even remove him from grass entirely by turning him out in a bare paddock with supplementary forage. Turnout, even if only for a few hours a day, will help to mentally stimulate him, and moving around the field will help reduce the risk of laminitis.
If you do turn your horse out on grass, a grazing muzzle can help to reduce grass intake by up to 80% by limiting his bite size and allowing him access to only the stalkier tops of the grass, which are lower in NSCs. However, it’s important not to leave it on for more than 12 hours. Research has shown that when muzzles are removed, horses can gorge themselves on grass to compensate. This means that when your horse isn’t wearing a muzzle, he should be stabled or kept in a bare paddock with hay to replace the missing forage.
To find out more ways of reducing the risk of laminitis this spring, and read our guide to spotting the signs of laminitis,Get your copy of April Horse&Rider here, on sale 9 March.