Feed to prevent founder in horses


Can you feed to prevent founder? Yes! This becomes especially important in the spring and fall, and for some higher-risk horses, a supportive diet helps all year long.  Modifying your horse’s diet, making conscious lifestyle changes, and preventative vet care can help lower the risk of laminitis. 


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Table of contents


What are laminitis and founder?

The primary causes of founder 

Help prevent founder with diet

What is the best diet and what are NSCs?

What causes pasture grass to increase sugar levels?

Feeding tips 

Lifestyle and barn management tips 



What are laminitis and founder?


  • Founder and laminitis are roughly the same diseases, and the terms are commonly interchanged. But, there are some differences. Laminitis is the swelling of the laminae, the folds of soft tissue that attach the coffin bone to the hoof wall. Founder can result from laminitis if the coffin bone rotates inside the hoof. As laminitis progresses, the swelling and damage to the laminae fail to hold the coffin bone in place.  


  • Both laminitis and founder are extremely painful and considered a veterinary emergency. While some horses recover, many do not. A bout of laminitis and founder create a higher risk for future episodes, and many horses never fully recover or are euthanized.

Read more about first aid for laminitis here

x ray of the hoof without a shoe

Radiographs are helpful in diagnosing laminitis and can track coffin bone changes.


The primary causes of founder in horses


  • Laminitis and founder have many causes, and not all involve an overweight pony on spring grass.  

Road founder


  • Road founder happens when there is an injury to the hoof because of movement. This could be long-term exercise on hard surfaces or short bursts of activity on hard surfaces. 

Leg and Hoof injuries


  • A horse with a severe injury to one leg or hoof will shift weight to the healthy leg. Over time, this stress on the healthy leg creates laminitis in that healthy leg.  



  • Incidentally, a hoof bruise, puncture, or another injury inside the hoof may cause laminitis in that hoof and its weight-bearing partner. 


vet giving sub q shot

Preventative care comes from your vet, you, and the diet you feed your horse.



Fevers and illness


  • A fever caused by a disease like Potomac Horse Fever or another whole-body inflammation increases the risk of founder. When a horse has a fever, the horse’s immune system responds by releasing inflammatory chemicals. These chemicals can damage the laminae, making them more susceptible to injury as the blood vessels are damaged and dilated, causing swelling and pain. 

Metabolic changes and insulin dysregulation


The accidental food binge


  • When faced with a good thing, horses rarely know when to stop. This is especially true with lush spring pasture, the feed room full of grains, and breaking into hay storage. The overloaded digestive system can trigger changes in the gut’s pH, disrupting the microbes and releasing endotoxins into the bloodstream. Those endotoxins love to destroy the laminae.  


horse front hoof wearing a soft ride boot for laminitis

This horse with laminitis wears extra squishy boots while healing. 


Help prevent founder with your horse’s diet 


  • The relationship between sugars, starches, and founder is a little bit complicated, but oh-so-important when looking at the big picture of your horse’s laminitis risk. For the sake of simplicity, “sugars” is commonly used to describe sugars and starches. 


  • When a horse eats sugars or starches, those ingredients are absorbed into the bloodstream and cause the horse’s insulin levels to rise. Insulin is a hormone that helps the body absorb sugar from the bloodstream. 


  • Let’s follow some sugars through the digestive system and into the hindgut, where microbes ferment your horse’s food. The fermentation process changes lactic acid production, which can change the pH of the hindgut. During this pH change, many microbes die and release endotoxins, which travel into the bloodstream and eventually through the hoof. Blood flow, especially to peripheral areas like hooves, is reduced, thus creating damage to the laminae, hence laminitis.  


  • These changes are more likely to occur when large volumes of sugars end up in the hindgut. 


  • Horses with metabolic conditions are at an increased risk of this, as the erratic insulin regulation boosts the susceptibility of the laminae.  


slow feeder for horse pellets and grains

You can find slow feeders for grains and pellets, too! 


Keep this in mind regarding sugars and starches


  • Horses must eat appropriate amounts of sugars and starches as part of a balanced diet – but HOW they eat is more important. Consider the volume of sugars and the speed at which those sugars enter the hindgut. If you ate 15 candy bars at once on an empty stomach, you would have a big stomach ache. But if you nibble on some candy in small amounts during the day after eating something else, you are more likely to tolerate those sugars. Slow is better.

What is the best diet for horses to prevent founder?


  • Before you and your equine nutritionist and vet formulate a diet for your horse, you must know your horse’s general risk for laminitis. Your vet can help you determine this based on your horse’s age, conformation, weight, breed, previous medical history, current access to pasture, metabolic disorders, and previous hoof disease or injury. An overweight, older horse with PPID that strolls on the trail once a week and spends hours on pasture is a higher risk than the athletic show horse that’s fit, young, and eats mostly hay.  


  • If your horse leans more towards the older lawn ornament, constructing a diet with lower NSC values is the place to begin.  

What is NSC?


  • Before we get into more acronyms, here is what a horse gets from eating plants. Structural carbohydrates are the fibers and “skeleton” that make up the structure of the plant. This skeleton forms the plant’s shape and provides fiber to aid your horse’s digestion by preventing constipation and water absorption.  


  • Non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs) are where a plant stores the energy it needs to grow and reproduce as sugars and starches. Your horse uses the NSCs as an energy source, too. Incidentally, horses love the taste of sugars and often eat the sugary parts of a pasture, including tasty weeds like dandelions, and leave the less tasty and thus lower NSC stuff.  


  • Horses need both types of carbohydrates! Fiber and sugars – yum.  


  • Regarding your horse’s pasture, hay, and bagged feeds, the NSC measures the amount of sugars and starches. Most high-laminitis risk horses should eat a diet with an NSC value of less than 10-12%.


bagged horse feeds

Read some labels! 



Bagged feeds 


  • Regarding bagged feeds – some brands will provide a straight-up NSC value for you. YEAH! Other brands will label their bags as “low-starch” or similar. BEWARE – and call the brand. The last “low-starch” feed I looked into was 19%. Hhhhmmm – marketing before health.


  • Avoid molasses as an ingredient! Yes, it’s delicious, but yikes, it will boost that NSC value. I’m looking at you, “senior feeds” with NSC values over 20%. Suspicious.



  • For hay – it’s helpful to know what types of hay are generally lower in starches, like Teff hay or other grass hays. You can have your hay tested, and the NSC value is roughly calculated as the total of starch, water-soluble carbohydrates (WSC), and ethanol-soluble carbohydrates (ESC). There are many labs you can send hay samples to, and your local ag extension service may offer hay testing, too. 




  • Here’s where it gets dicey. Pasture has so many things that horses need – nutrients, movement, and time with the herd.  


  • But grass is testy, and sugars and starches can spike to higher levels than are safe for founder-risk horses. The key is to know your horse’s risk and understand how grass changes. There will likely be times when a dry-lot is better for your horse’s turnout than grass. 


lush green pasture with barn in the background

This expanse of salad may not be ideal for the high-risk horse.



What causes pasture grass to increase sugar levels? 


  • Sugars can “spike” to higher levels when the grass is stressed or busy photosynthesizing. Here are some times that grass can get panicked and start to hoard those tasty sugars:


  • Spring growing season when it goes from zero to lush fields in a week. And then stays lush.


  • Sunlight triggers grasses to photosynthesize, and cloudy days are a bit safer. Hot afternoons without shade will really bring out the sugars. 


  • Cool mornings in the fall will slow down a plant’s growth, and the sugars are just hanging around increasing, waiting to do something. 


  • Frosty grass, similar to cool mornings, will increase sugars.  


  • Extra-short grass. Pasture grasses concentrate their sugar reserves close to the earth. Grass shorter than 3 inches is packed full of tasty sugars. This is why horses will nibble at the root instead of eating the longer blades.  


  • Mowing can often cause a boost of sugars, and most vets suggest keeping horses off pasture for at least a day after mowing. And don’t mow too short! 


  • When looking at NSC values seasonally, spring and fall are the highest. Fall laminitis is often riskier because a horse’s natural hormone cycle fluctuates and can amplify sugar sensitivity. 


frosty horse pasture and fence

Frosty grass may not be the best for your horse!



Feed to prevent founder


  • Watch your horse’s weight. Using a weight tape weekly is more accurate than a girth fitting differently – too many factors there, including stretched leather and different thickness saddle pads.  


  • Feed to prevent founder with a low NSC value diet. Consider grass hay, limited pasture, supplements, and feeds. An equine nutritionist is a great place to start. 


  • Work with your vet or nutritionist to find laminitis-support supplements. Adding magnesium and chromium can be beneficial, as can Omega-3 fatty acid supplements. Remove molasses from your horse’s diet, and you may want to reconsider corn, barley, and oats. If your horse needs an energy boost, consider rice bran.


  • Change the treats you feed your horse. Replace carrots and apples with hay cubes or low-sugar treats, checking NSC values, of course. 


  • There are dozens of alternatives to bagged feeds for horses. You can use supplements mixed with damp hay pellets as a vehicle instead of a ration balancer or “grain” feed. 


  • Feed hay first. When you give fortified feeds, concentrates, grains, ration balancers, etc, fill your horse’s belly with hay first. The hay creates a “traffic jam” and can slow the sugars entering the hindgut.  


  • Use slow feeders for everything! You can buy slow feeders for pellets, grains, cubes, and hay. 


  • Your horse can also wear a slow feeder. Grazing muzzles are just that – a face net that slows down and limits the volume of grass a high-risk horse can eat. 


  • Have a dry-lot as an alternative. Sometimes horses should not eat pasture; dry-lots with many slow feeders are superb alternatives.  


horse in field wearing a greenguard grazing muzzle

Grazing muzzles are wearable hay nets!


For more on when to use grazing muzzles, read this gem.


Feeding the sudden case of laminitis


  • First aid for laminitis included your vet, pain management, and a diet change. Remove all foods if you suspect laminitis and call your vet. After examination and creating a treatment plan, then make a new diet. Eliminate grains, supplements (usually), and pasture, and stick to grass hay feed via slow feeders. 


  • Your vet may suggest some laminitis-supporting supplements to mix with hay pellets or hay cubes. Over time, you may be able to add in a low NSC value feed and pasture grass. Diet changes might happen in a month, or a year, or longer.  


  • Laminitis and founder are marathons, not sprints, and feeding your horse and monitoring their weight and metabolic status go hand-in-hand. 

Lifestyle tips to help prevent laminitis


Know your horse’s risk factors


  • Checking your horse’s metabolic status is as simple as a few blood tests. The time of year matters for some conditions, and some tests are best when your horse has fasted. Your vet can help you navigate your options.  

Vaccinate your horse


  • Vaccinations and veterinary exams help prevent diseases. When the chance of disease goes down, overall health increases. You will also be vaccinating against many diseases that cause whole-body inflammation.

Exercise your horse


  • Horses need to walk and move. Aside from helping your horse’s general health, riding or exercising your horse alerts you to how your horse is feeling. You may catch a fever or lameness in early stages. 


horse thermometer with attached string

Do you know your horse’s vital signs?


Notice changes in vital signs, weight, and overall attitude. 


  • Knowing your horse, inside and out, is preventative care. You should know your horse’s normal:
      • Pulse
      • Respirations
      • Temperature
      • Gum color and capillary refill time
      • Digital pulses
      • Weight
      • Manure – color, size, consistency, location, frequency
      • Urine – ditto
      • Sore spots
      • Itchy spots
      • Reactions when legs, girth, belly, and large muscles are touched
      • Eye discharge 
      • Nose discharge
      • Habits and quirks
      • So many things! 

Check your horse’s digital pulses daily.  


  • The digital pulse is somewhat like a pressure gauge inside the hoof. A typical digital pulse should be absent or faint. A strong or bounding digital pulse means inflammation and danger inside the hoof.  


  • While it’s always tempting to “wait and see” if you suspect a hoof problem, delaying treatment makes a recovery more difficult. And while your farrier is a skilled professional, they can not diagnose, treat, or prescribe medications for your horse. Your vet and farrier should work together for any hoof issues.  


Many horses with previous founders can have delightful lives with careful management. There will be lots of ducks to get into rows, including nutrition.   


This video shows you how the digital artery “works” to check your horse’s hoof health.  Inflammation in the hoof has nowhere to go – it’s trapped by a hard shell. 


This video shows you how to measure the digital pulse.  As a general rule of thumb, no news is good news.  If there’s no pulse, everything should be normal. There’s always the exception, though.



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Basket-style grazing muzzle to help keep a horse at a healthy weight and help reduce the risks of colic and laminitis in some horses.

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Halters – GG Equine

These grazing muzzle halters have adjustable throat latches and extra strapping to help prevent removal.

Use code 15PROEQUINE for a discount on muzzles!

Grazing Muzzle by GG Equine

Basket-style grazing muzzle to help keep a horse at a healthy weight and help reduce the risks of colic and laminitis in some horses.

Use code 15PROEQUINE for savings on muzzles!

Grazing Muzzle Accessories – GG Equine

Help your horse have the best-fitting grazing muzzle.

Use code 15PROEQUINE for a discount on muzzles!

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Use code 15PROEQUINE for savings on muzzles!

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