After the unforeseeable wet weather we have had over the past week, typical English weather, the only way is up for the grass. Which can only lead to one thing in some horses and ponies … laminitis! We work so hard in the winter months to keep condition on our beloved four legged friends then summer comes around and we have to do the complete opposite and watch their weight.
In the wild, horses naturally lose weight during the winter and gain condition during the spring and summer. Over the winter it is important to use this opportunity to allow your horse’s metabolism to reset and to shed any excess weight they may have gained over the summer.
Top tip: Invest in some weigh tapes at the yard so you can keep a regular check on their weight. It may not give a particularly accurate reading, but it will give you a benchmark.
Obesity is an evermore growing problem in the equine world today. Just like humans, excess weight can increase the risk of heart disease, respiratory problems and arthritis which can all develop into life limiting conditions. However, the most common condition associated with overweight horses is laminitis.
So what is laminitis?
Laminitis is an excruciatingly painful condition of the foot. It affects the inner hoof wall that is made up from sensitive interlinking fibres called laminae. At the start on laminitis the blood flow to the laminae is affected and they begin to separate which in turn becomes very painful. To keep it simple this means the pedal bone does not have sufficient support and can begin to rotate. Without treatment the pedal bone can rotate so much that it can come through the soles of the hoof. This is known as foundering.
There are a number of causes of laminitis some of which are not commonly known:
Severe infections (toxaemia)
Overenthusiastic hoof trimming
Trauma to the hoof
The most common cause is the horse or pony being overweight. For this to happen they have to take in high levels of starch and sugar. When this reaches the gut it can cause toxins to be released which then enter the bloodstream and affect the sensitive laminae in the foot.
Did you know the best time of day to graze a laminitic horse or pony is during the morning? During the day grass uses light to make sugar to use for growth and reproduction of the plant.The sugars deplete overnight and are at their lowest in the very early morning.
Not all overweight horses and ponies have indulged too much in the rich spring/summer grass. Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) which is a metabolic conditions that can make the horse or pony more susceptible to putting on weight making them more reactive to the high levels of starch and sugar in the grass. This needs to be managed carefully.
Symptoms and treatment of laminitis
Many cases of laminitis will come on very quickly and can result in you needing veterinary advice and treatment. It is more common in ponies however some horse can be subsettable.
Reluctance to move
Hard and pronounced crest
Heat in the feet and an increased digital pulse
Rocking back on their heels
If your horse or pony is displaying these symptoms then they must be taken off the grass immediately and a vet may need to be called out depending on the severity of the symptoms. They should be put into a stable on either straw or shaving to cushion their feet and provide support for the hoof. You must NOT starve them but provide them with soaked hay to eat.
Photo credit: Horse Journals
If a vet is needed they may take X-Rays of the hooves to find out the severity of the damage that has been caused. The pedal bone has started to rotate then to counteract this they may need corrective shoeing. If they have had it before they might be prone to laminitis and it important to monitor them in future.
Sugar levels in grass are highest in the spring and another flush in autumn. In this time you may want to consider restricting their grazing. This can be done by either turning them out in a small paddock with little grass or on sand with soaked hay. If this isn’t an option then an alternative grazing muzzles may be another option.
There are a number of feeds and supplements that are perfect for horses and ponies that are prone to this and can be fed to them throughout the year.