Watching out for the signs of founder in horses
Founder in horses, also called laminitis, is the profound swelling and pain in the hoof when the soft tissues swell. Knowing these signs of founder gives your horse the best chance at a good recovery.
Table of contents:
Founder in horses.
What are laminitis and founder?
- Laminitis and founder are often used interchangeably, but they are slightly different. Laminitis is the swelling of the soft tissues inside the hoof. The laminae are a series of folded and vascular tissues that run from the hoof wall to the coffin bone. When they are inflamed, there is nowhere for the swelling to go, as the hoof wall is rigid. This is why laminitis is wildly painful.
- You usually see a horse that is painful on the front feet, as more of the horse’s body weight rests on the front legs. It can, and does, happen in hind hooves, too.
- Founder occurs when the coffin bone inside the hoof begins to twist, sink, or move in any direction. This is excruciatingly painful and may end up with the bone poking through the sole of the hoof. Founder is often a long-term condition, and treatment at the first sign of a hoof problem can give your horse a good chance at recovery. Your veterinarian should be your first call the moment you notice a hoof problem. Bruises, abscesses, and other hoof troubles can look exactly alike. Your vet can determine what is going on, how to treat it, and what pain management program to use.
- Acute cases of laminitis appear suddenly, almost out of the blue. Chronic laminitis cases last weeks, months, and even years. Chronic laminitis often creates episodes of laminitis, frequent abscessing, questionable soundness, strange growth rings, and other changes to the hoof wall.
Knowing how to check your horse’s digital pulse can help your horse. In some cases of laminitis, a stronger digital pulse is your clue that the inside of the hoof is inflamed.
The signs of founder in horses
- Early signs of founder are typically not very obvious. Subtle changes are much more common than the stance where a horse rocks back to relieve the pressure on the front hooves. While this is a possibility, only about 25% of laminitis horses show this behavior. There was a great study about this, which you can read here.
Other signs of laminitis and founder include:
- Tenderfooteed or sore after being shod or after eating grass.
- Hesitancy to walk, or walking as if on eggshells.
- Hesitancy to transition from a soft mat to a harder surface.
- Turning may look like a pirouette or pivot instead of his normal manner of turning. You may see shorter steps and hopping around.
- Shifting weight more frequently, or not at all. Some horses may also stretch out a front leg.
- Warm or hot hooves. Yes, this is also a sign that your horse has been standing in the sun.
- The hair around the coronary band starts to point up. This usually happens when the internal structures are sinking.
- Increased digital pulses. This happens in most horses with hoof problems, although not all.
- Colic signs. Laminitis is painful, and you may see overall signs of discomfort that mimic colic.
Checking for heat and a strong digital pulse takes seconds.
What causes founder?
- There are a few primary causes of founder, and it seems that metabolic issues are the most common.
- There are two primary metabolic issues to know about. One is Equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) which is a condition characterized by insulin resistance, obesity, and laminitis. A horse with EMS will become less sensitive to insulin, thus his body starts to create more and more of it to manage sugar levels. Insulin dysregulation is a primary cause of laminitis. In research settings, horses develop laminitis when given IV drips of insulin.
- It’s helpful to know about equine Cushing’s disease, also known as Pituitary Pars Intermedia dysfunction (PPID). This condition results from an overactivity of hormones released from the pituitary gland. This cascade of hormonal changes influences insulting regulation, thus leading to lamintis risk. While this does not fall under the umbrella of equine metabolic syndrome, some horses will also develop insulin resistance.
Supporting limb laminitis
- Injured legs are often so painful that a horse will not bear the usual amount of weight. Those three legs then bear most of your horse’s body weight and can develop laminitis from all of that pressure. Fractures, street nail, cellulitis, lymphangitis, and other painful injuries may create supporting limb laminitis. This is typically a slow development, maybe over weeks at a time.
Road founder and repetitive trauma
- Horses that spend time pounding legs on hard surfaces are susceptible to road founder. This may be the case for a carriage horse that spends hours upon hours on hard ground, or the horse that escapes and runs up and down the road. Other types of repetitive trauma and concussion to the legs may also create a road founder situation.
- When a horse has a systemic illness, such as colic, pneumonia, retained placenta in mares, colitis, or any other virus or bacteria infection, laminitis is a real possibility. Even fevers of known (or unknown) origin can trigger laminitis.
- In similar situations, a horse that gorges on grain also creates an inflammatory disease process that can head towards colic and laminitis. When grains and concentrates zip through the digestive system quickly, large amounts of sugars and starches land in the hindgut to ferment. Gas and endotoxins are the results of this microbe feast, which can trigger colic and subsequent laminitis.
- Environmental factors such as black walnut exposure also trigger laminitis in horses. In the case of black walnut shavings, horses will develop laminitis within hours and are usually seen with swollen legs, too
Founder treatments and supportive care
Some of us would rather save a few bucks and have our farrier come out to check for an abscess or hoof bruise.
- Please call your vet. Farriers are wonderfully talented health care professionals, but are not able to x-ray, diagnose, prescribe medications, and work deep into the soft tissues of the hoof. Certainly call your vet and farrier to work together on any hoof problem, but please don’t delay in getting the vet out.
- Icing hooves is one way to provide pain relief and reduce inflammation for those painful hooves. In cases of laminitis, icing for several days continuously may be needed. For tips on icing hooves read this!
- Get an accurate picture of the hoof’s bones and structures with x-rays. These give your vet a baseline to monitor changes from. Your farrier also needs these to provide support with corrective trimming, wedges, or special shoes. You may want to document the exterior and sole of the hoof with photos and notes.
- Anti-inflammatory medications are needed for pain relief and help with inflammation. There are many types, your vet can give you the best pain management plan. More about bute, Banamine®, and Equioxx® here.
Your vet can also help identify the CAUSE of founder, like metabolic problems.
- Modify your horse’s diet. Switch to low NSC value hay, grains, and supplements. An equine nutritionist is a wonderful resource for finding the best diet for your foundering horse. It’s most likely that these diet changes need to become permanent. Find out if your horse is a candidate for using a grazing muzzle while on grass turnout. Horses with active laminitis need to avoid pasture at all costs. Horses with well-managed metabolic challenges may be safe on pasture with grazing muzzles.
- Keep your horse’s footing soft and safe! Use lots of fluffy shavings and cushy stall mats. Your farrier can also use squishy pads or packing to add gentle support. There are also lots of soft boots that your horse can wear.
Knowing the signs of laminitis and founder is the first step towards better health for your horse!
There are a lot of super resources out there for horses and founder. One of them is Fran Jurga’s Hoof Blog. You can also read more about laminitis here:
How the digital pulse “works”
How to find the digital pulse
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