Laminitis in horses – guide for prevention and management

Laminitis can be a problem for your horse – and for you as an owner. If you’re looking for horses for sale, then it’s also something you need to look for in your potential steed. Here’s the Horsefinder guide to laminitis.

Laminitis is the inflammation of the laminae or membrane which attaches the pedal bone to the hoof. When the laminae swells and is starved of nutrient rich blood, it can fail painfully, resulting in the sinking and rotation of the pedal bone – sometimes right through the sole of the foot.

Laminitis can strike any horse or pony although some are more susceptible. With prompt treatment it can be managed, but if neglected the consequences can be fatal. Here’s our guide to laminitis prevention, and what to do if your horse develops it.

laminitis poor hoof health
Radiographic image of horse leg and hoof looking for laminitis

Causes of laminitis

  • High starch or sugar content in the diet. This can cause an imbalance in the microbial environment in the hindgut. When the animal tries to digest a high fructan diet Streptococcus lutetiensis in the hind gut feeds off it, producing lactic acid and causing the now acidic gut to leak laminitis trigger factors. Although digested in the fore gut, a diet high in molasses will cause an increase in the amount of insulin in the bloodstream which directly leads to laminitis.
  • High insulin levels or insulin resistance (IR). It has been found that simply injecting lean healthy horses with three times the normal level of insulin will trigger laminitis.
  • Toxaemia as a result of any bacterial infection e.g. following a retained afterbirth or a bout of diarrhoea.
  • Obesity. Obese horses put more load on their feet and the fat around their bellies is hormonally active producing cortisol and inflammatory factors which predispose them to laminitis. In addition obese horses are often insulin resistant (IR) or suffer from Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) both of which are risk factors for laminitis.
  • Hormonal factors. Horses with PPID or ‘Cushing’s disease’ will all develop laminitis. IR, EMS and being ‘in season’ are also risk factors.
  • The administration of certain drugs e.g. corticosteroids. Any drug which has an effect on the hormonal system can potentially trigger laminitis.
  • Hoof damage due to hard or fast work on hard surfaces or following overenthusiastic hoof trimming.
  • Compensatory weight bearing on one leg following injury to another. Excessive weight bearing causes vasoconstriction, starving the affected hoof of blood and bringing on laminitis.
  • Stress e.g. after foaling, separation from a companion or a long journey. This can trigger an undesirable hormonal response.
  • Cold weather. A few horses are susceptible to laminitis during colder weather.
laminitis rich meadow pasture
Rich pasture can be an issue for horses susceptible to weight gain and laminitis

How to prevent laminitis

The disease is multifactoral – meaning that it usually takes a number of factors to push your four footed friend over the threshold for developing it. For this reason, it’s a good idea to make sure you manage as many of the risk factors as well as you can, even when the main factor has been trauma or PPID.

  • Manage your horse’s diet. Feed a forage based diet e.g. mature hay with alfalfa (which contains minerals which improve hoof health). For extra calories use vegetable oils but supplement high oil diets with vitamin E and selenium. Keep the diet high in fibre, but soak hay for two hours beforehand to remove some of the protein, increase the water content and to avoid impaction colic. Make sure water is always available. Avoid bran, since its high phosphorous levels can lead to low levels of calcium. Avoid high starch or sugar feeds including cereals, molassed coarse mixes and straw chops. Make dietary changes gradually (over the space of three or four days) to avoid colic and feed little and often. Where hard feeds are needed, feed slightly less than the recommended amounts. Consider including yeast products which promote the health of beneficial bacteria in the hind gut. Store grain and feed behind a locked door so that your horse can’t get to it.
  • Manage your grazing. Avoid over rich ryegrass, clover and fertilised grassland. Unproductive grasslands such as hill land, old meadow or parkland is best. Fructan levels can change in a matter of hours in response to the temperature and are concentrated in the stalks of the grass. For this reason, do not turn your horses out when the temperature is below 5° or on stressed or bare paddocks.  When fructan levels are high in the spring and autumn it may be worth fencing off a smaller area for grazing or cross grazing with sheep. Fructan levels fall at night, so it can be worth turning them out late at night or at first light, and bringing them in before mid-morning.
  • Manage your horse’s weight. You should be able to feel your horse’s ribs when running your hand over his body, but not see them. Monitor his crest. If it is hard, or if he is fatter than condition score three, do not turn him out to pasture. Allow some seasonal weight loss in winter in anticipation of weight gain in spring.
  • Check your horse’s feet and pick them out every day. If you know your horse’s feet you can spot the early signs and take prompt action.
  • Check your horse’s digital pulses daily – particularly after medical problems such as colic or a retained placenta. A hoof that stays ‘hot’ for over 48 hours or in which the digital pulse is stronger may be showing early signs of the disease.
  • Maintain a good exercise routine. This will prevent obesity and has the added benefit of lowering insulin levels.
  • Use a farrier every four to six weeks. Regular trimming and correct foot balance or even specialist shoes can help to keep hooves in good condition.
  • Feed a hoof supplement such as biotin or a vitamin and mineral supplement to promote good hoof growth. In addition antioxidants help to maintain good health and a magnesium supplement may increase insulin sensitivity.
  • Avoid excessive work on hard surfaces such as hard roads in winter and at summer shows or riding on rocky terrain without shoes.
  • Test for IR and PPID where necessary. There are now very effective treatments for PPID.
  • Fit warm leg wraps in cold weather if your horse has a tendency to develop symptoms then.

What to do if your horse develops signs of laminitis

It’s crucial to act quickly in order to save your horse pain and more problems down the line. Move the horse to a smaller stable and bed down with a 10 cm plus layer of shavings, cardboard or sand to cushion the feet. Do not be tempted to put your horse’s hooves in cold water to lessen the pain as prolonged cold will make the condition worse. Remove any feed including molasses licks, but provide plenty of water. Try to keep a companion nearby to lessen stress.

Call the vet. They can give painkillers, a peripheral vasodilator, a sedative to encourage your horse to lie down, and fit frog shoes if necessary. The vet may also x-ray the animal’s hooves to establish whether rotation of the pedal bone has occurred. Never starve a laminitic horse as it can be fatal. The most successful cases are managed by consulting both a vet, a farrier and a nutritionist to advise on the correct treatment, foot care and diet following an attack.

Spotting symptoms of laminitis when buying a horse

Viewing horses for sale is the only way to buy safely. Trust your instincts, but most importantly conduct a vet check. See our guide here: buy a horse with Horsefinder.


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