We tend to associate laminitis with warmer days and lush grass in the Spring but actually Winter is the ideal time to think think about laminitis, and assess your horse’s risk levels. There are plenty of actions you can take to help your horse, and I am going to outline these in this article.
If your horse suffers with laminitis you are probably on ‘lami- alert’ all year round, it can be a very difficult condition to manage. However so many owners think of laminitis as a disease that occurs just in the Springtime, and only affects a fat ‘Thelwell’ type pony. Sadly this is not the case, laminitis is now thought to be the biggest cause of lameness, and an increasing number of horses are euthanized each year due to the unbearable pain of this condition.
So with this in mind here are five steps you can take to reduce your horse’s risk of suffering from laminitis.
1. Open your eyes to your horse’s true weight
Laminitis can affect horses of all ages, shapes and sizes but the overweight animal is at significantly greater risk of suffering from laminitis. Whilst a hairy cob or Shetland pony can’t be magically morphed into a lean Thoroughbred it is possible to have your horse at a healthy weight whatever their type.
So firstly it is essential to realistically assess your horse’s weight and body condition score. I say realistically because I hear so many owners give such an array of ‘excuses’ for their horse being overweight. Establishing your horse’s weight using a weighbridge is a very useful exercise, partly to help you create a weight loss plan but also to give you an accurate weight for medication and worming dosing. Assessing your horse’s body condition score, as well as establishing weight is the best way to determine if your horse is overweight, and if so to what extent.
Body condition scoring involves assessing the amount of fat coverage over specific bony landmarks and scoring this on a one to five, or one to nine scale. Just like humans horses and ponies lay down fat in different areas, so it is important to assess the whole horse. I use a nine point scale, and an overall score of 4 or 5 would be ideal. Again there is a need for owners to be realistic and objective when completing this assessment. We sometimes include this as part of a practical element to our popular Horse First Aid Courses, and I generally hear remarks like ‘he looks well’ for horses scoring a 6 or 7, and an assessments can be skewed by the conformation of the horse or pony. Many owners would be familiar with feeling for their horse’s ribs, but again it is worth highlighting that light pressure should be used, not the owner virtually pushing the horse over in their attempt to feel it’s ribs.
Did you allow seasonal weight loss to occur over the winter? I have written numerous posts and articles over the winter about the benefits of seasonal weight loss, but I still think owners are reluctant to allow this to happen, and don’t to use this to their advantage. It’s certainly not too late for help your horse lose weight naturally by reducing the number of rugs used, leaving stable windows open and choosing lower calorie feed options.
2. The right forage ingested at the right rate
The aim of feeding an overweight horse, or one prone to laminitis is to provide a reduced calorifc intake, but still with plenty to eat so that digestive function is not compromised, and natural grazing behaviours can be mimicked. Good options for these horses and ponies are soaked hay, or hay that has been steamed and then soaked. If soaking hay isn’t possible then it is sensible to have your hay analyzed so you know exactly what you are feeding your horse.
To make a comparison with to a human needing to lose weight a reduced calorie diet high in fibre, fruit and vegetables results in successful sustainable weight loss. It’s not dissimilar for your horse.
It is well documented that once a horse is overweight metabolic changes can occur, and these horses may also be insulin resistant. This means that will also be resistant to another hormone called leptin. Leptin is a useful hormone which tells the brain that the horse has had enough to eat. The overweight horse effectively doesn’t have this ‘off- switch’ so it will continue to eat. Slowing down their rate of ingestion is probably one of the easiest steps you can take to help your horse maintain or reach the correct weight. The Trickle Net is an ideal way to slow your horse down, and many owners have noted how much slower their horse is eating, and that their hay is lasting longer.
3. Limiting the grass
At this time of year the grass is already starting to grow, even if it doesn’t look like it is. Unlike hay it can be difficult to assess how many calories your horse is receiving from the grass, and it is estimated that ponies who are only turned out for a few hours a day can ingested the same amount of grass as those turned out for a whole day.
Providing your horse with less grass, but still giving your horse adequate turn out time is a real challenge. I saw a great set up at a yard last week where three ponies, who have previously suffered with laminitis, had an enriched ‘low grass’ turnout area, and looked very well and happy. They had access to a hard standing covered area with soaked hay, they had some safe ‘scrub-area’ with very poor patchy grass, and access to a little arena as well which they were clearly enjoying for rolling. This was a so much better than stabling these ponies, or giving them a ‘starvation paddock’. They had a lot of space to move around, they had to search out the hay and were able to satisfy their natural behaviours.
Whilst this might be not possible to do at every livery yard a grazing muzzle is a useful way to limit grass intake, without compromising on turnout time. I find that owners are very reluctant to use a muzzle, but in my experience horses and ponies do get used to these very quickly. I suggest to owners that they start off with several different muzzles to find which one suits there horse or pony best, and swapping between different designs will help prevent rubs over the first few days.
Another option which is becoming increasingly more popular is the use of a ‘track’ grazing system, where the centre of a field is fenced off leaving the horses a large walkway round the outside. Hay can be provided if required but this limits grass intake, and encourages more movement which is ideal.
4. Establishing an underlying cause
Around 90% of laminitis cases actually have an underlying hormonal cause, and grazing is a trigger for laminitis to occur. Working with your vet to establish the cause, and then working out a sensible treatment plan will help keep laminitis at bay.
The two conditions linked to laminitis are Cushings Disease, correctly termed Pituitary Pars Intermedius Disfunction (PPID), and Equine Metabolic Syndrome. PPID is a hormonal disease caused by changes in the pituitary gland in the brain, it is often a consequence of aging, although it can affect younger horses, and depending on your horse’s age it may be a sensible step to get your horse tested for this disease. It can often be well controlled with medication, and treating this condition will lessen the symptoms of the disease as well as reduce their risk of suffering with laminitis. EMS is likened to a ‘pre-diabetic condition’ in humans and these animals are typically overweight, with abnormal fat distribution and may be insulin resistant putting them at increased risk of laminitis. Working together with your vet to help your horse become a healthy weight will help you manage this condition.
5. Know the early signs
If you asked a room full of horse owners to name the signs of laminitis most would describe the classic ‘laminitis stance’, with the horse or pony rocked back on its heels. Research has highlighted many sub-clinical signs of laminitis, which if noted in time allow for treatment and management changes before the condition worsens.
Horses may change their behaviour in the stable, banking up bedding under their hooves to take pressure of the front of the hoof. The appearance of hoof rings on the outside of the hoof, is likely to indicate changes in the lamellar cells, and this may allow a window of time for treatment before the condition develops and becomes increasingly more painful
One study noted that the ‘Horse Grimace Scale’, a method of facial pain recognition scoring was a more accurate way to note pain associated with laminitis, and that these facial expressions were more common in laminitic horses and ponies than the classic laminitis stance. There are certainly many signs to look out for before the horse is lame with hot painful hooves.
I hope that you have found this article helpful, and this you feel empowered to take some positive steps in the fight against laminitis. Remember this condition can affect horses and ponies of all ages and sizes, but that there is lots that owners can do to prevent this happening.
If you’d like to learn more about laminitis, and how to manage this condition why don’t you take part in the next ‘National Laminitis Awareness Day’ which I am running on 10th July 2020. You can take part in webinars, Q+A sessions with our vets and there will be lots of free factsheets to download, it’s going to be an action packed day.
You can register for more details at the link HERE