The signs of laminitis


There is one reason that the phrase “no hoof, no horse” exists: laminitis.  This heartbreaking condition often comes on suddenly and can mimic other hoof problems.  The best way to treat laminitis is to prevent it, and to know the signs of laminitis.  


Table of contents:

What is laminitis?

Here are the signs of laminitis

What causes laminitis?

Treatment of laminitis in horses


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Laminitis in horses


  • Laminitis, also called founder, is a terrible condition in the hoof that can lead to bone changes, permanent lameness, and unfortunately, death.


What is laminitis in horses?


  • Laminitis is the inflammation of the laminae inside of the hoof wall. This is a medical emergency! The laminae are a series of folded soft tissues containing vessels to support proper blood flow within the hoof. It’s the “velcro” surrounding the coffin bone (also known as the distal phalanx or the pedal bone) and glues it to the hoof capsule.


  • Laminitis is most common in both front feet and can happen in the hind feet as well. Founder is when the “velcro” has failed, and the hoof bones are displaced, either by sinking, rotating, or sinking medially. It’s quite common to use the words laminitis, laminitic, foundered, and foundering interchangeably.


  • Severe cases of founder can, unfortunately, result in the rotation of the coffin bone and eventual breaking through the sole of the hoof.


  • If you are at all uncertain about anything – call your veterinarian. Better safe than sorry. Even a tiny delay in veterinary care can have staggering implications on the outcome of this disease. Do not delay! Any problems within the hoof can indicate different things and severe cases of laminitis may look like bruising, abscesses, or other lamenesses.


  • Acute laminitis pops up suddenly and is new and fresh. Chronic laminitis can drag on for months and even years, with your horse’s hooves constantly changing. Chronic cases of equine laminitis are susceptible to a lifetime of abscesses, obvious growth rings on the hoof, questionable soundness, and flares of laminitic episodes.


digital pulse location

A stronger digital pulse than usual can be a HUGE clue to what’s happening in the hoof. For details on finding and checking the digital pulse, this article has more info. Also, check the videos below!


Here are the signs of laminitis:


  • Your horse is tender or sore after being shod. Sub-clinical laminitic horses may also become sore after eating, especially on pasture. Sensitivity to grass may increase during the spring and fall as sugars rise in lush pasture. And while the pasture grass in fall may not look “lush,” the grass is actively hoarding sugars to prepare for winter. Cooler mornings create more dangerous levels, too.


  • Walking is uncomfortable, and your horse may hesitate as if they’re walking on eggshells. Transitioning from a soft squishy mat to harder ground creates hesitation and painful steps.


  • They may not want to turn in small spaces; they may pirouette/pivot and put all their weight on the hind end. Shorter steps and limping during a turn can sometimes be seen, too.


  • Mild colic. Sometimes the pain of laminitis shows itself as a colic situation – just another reason to call the vet pronto!


  • Postural changes. Are they standing differently? Some horses look as if their front feet are splayed out in front of them. That typical stance of a horse leaning dramatically backward is actually not as common as once thought! A fascinating study revealed that about 10% of horses will develop laminitis, and only a few postured this way. Read the study here.


  • Horses may stand with a front leg stretched outward to alleviate the feeling of excessive weight on that hoof and the bone within. Shifting from side to side to distribute weight may happen more frequently than normal. Other horses will remain perfectly still and resist shifting their body weight.


Inspect and monitor the hooves 


feel the hoof with your hands

Checking for heat and a strong digital pulse takes seconds a day to do.


  • The hooves are warm or hot. Again, check every day as you pick feet. Heat signals inflammation, and inflammation causes pain. The swelling in the hoof wall is trapped, which makes things even more awful.


  • You may even see the hair around the coronary band and pastern start to poke out and look like fringe. As the swelling persists and the coffin bone moves, the hair may be rearranged as the anatomy inside changes.


  • Your horse’s digital pulses are strong and bounding. It’s best to know your horse’s normal digital pulse; check it every day as you check legs and pick feet. It’s typical for a healthy hoof to have a barely perceptible pulse around the fetlock. Unfortunately, some horses don’t have this increased digital pulse as an apparent clinical sign.



Overlapping clinical signs of many hoof problems


  • Do some of these signs look like bruising, severe abscesses, or injuries to the sole of the foot? YES! Hoof problems can also produce those colic-like signs that confuse everything.


  • Sometimes, hoof issues like bruises and abscesses can become more serious problems, like laminitis. Any suspected hoof pain in a horse needs immediate veterinary care! Your horse will thank you, and any severe pain can be alleviated quickly.


horse in ice boots

There are lots of ways to cool the hoof, providing relief! These laminitis boots keep the hooves icy cold for hours.


What causes laminitis?


  • OOF! There are plenty of reasons horses develop laminitis. Sometimes a horse suddenly develops laminitis; in other cases, this hoof disease is a slow burn. Clinic signs may live under the surface for weeks, months, or years.


Metabolic issues


  • Equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) is a condition in horses that is characterized by Insulin Resistance (IR), obesity, and laminitis. Many overweight horses will develop IR, which interferes with insulin regulation. As a horse becomes less sensitive to insulin in his body, sugar levels creep up. Morse insulin is needed to regulate those sugars.


  • There is overwhelming evidence that too much insulin directly affects the laminae in your horse’s hooves. It’s possible that the insulin creates a change in the blood flow into the foot, eventually causing laminitis in horses. More insulin is directly linked to a horse’s high risk of developing this disease. In research and clinical settings, laminitis is induced when horses are on IV drips of insulin.


  • Another metabolic disorder is equine Cushing’s disease, also known as Pituitary Pars Intermedia dysfunction (PPID). While this does not fall under the umbrella of equine metabolic syndrome, some horses will also develop insulin resistance.


  • Equine Cushing’s disease stems from a pituitary gland issue in the brain, releasing hormones to create a cascade of chemical reactions in your horse. Eventually, a horse’s insulin levels rise, creating that risk factor for developing laminitis.


  • It’s thought that metabolic disorders are the most common cause of laminitis.


Supporting limb laminitis


  • When a horse has an injury, severe or otherwise, that creates extreme pain in a leg, a horse will shift his weight to the other legs. The excessive weight on the standing legs can not support your horse’s body, and the standing legs develop supporting limb laminitis.


  • Fractures, street nails, and even cellulitis and lymphangitis are instances when a horse is at high risk of inflammation and eventual laminitis. Supporting limb laminitis is usually a slowly developing situation.


Road founder and repetitive trauma


  • Road founder happens as a horse spends some time pounding his legs on hard surfaces. This could be an isolated incident, such as the loose horse galloping on asphalt or packed earth. In other cases, road founder can cause laminitis with long-term concussion on hard surfaces. Riding consistently on a rock-solid arena, roads, and tracks can also create problems.


An inflammatory disease process:



  • A horse that gorges on grain also creates an inflammatory disease process that can head toward colic and laminitis. Grains, concentrates, and feeds zip through the stomach and small intestine quickly! When they land in the hindgut, they are quickly gobbled up by sugar-loving microbes. Those microbes then create by-products, changing the pH of the gut. Large amounts of gas can develop, and other types of microbes die and poison the bloodstream. This lands in the hooves, creating laminitis.


  • Black walnut shavings create acute laminitis within hours of touching your horse’s body. Standing in shavings with even a small percentage of black walnut will cause laminitis. Interestingly enough, the lower legs typically swell, something that’s not usually seen.


Treatment of laminitis in horses


Some of us would rather save a few bucks and have our farrier come out to check for an abscess or hoof bruise.


  • However, your veterinarian is also versed in this and can eliminate laminitis as a cause. Veterinarians can diagnose diseases and conditions, take x-rays, prescribe appropriate medications and pain relief, and work into the soft tissue in the hoof. Farriers can’t do these things. Don’t wait, don’t wait, don’t wait if you see any of those signs—every second counts.


  • Call the vet and get those hooves into ice water or pack them with ice packs. For tips on icing hooves read this! For a long time. 48 hours or more of continuous ice will help. And, it’s pain relief.


  • Your vet will likely take x-rays to check the coffin bone. X-rays also track your horse’s progress and help your farrier provide support with corrective trimming, wedges, special shoes, or whatever your horse needs. Taking video and pictures of your horse’s hooves along the way also tracks progress and can record growth rings on the hoof wall.


  • Your vet will likely prescribe anti-inflammatory medications like Bananime, and give you a schedule for follow-up visits.

Change your horse’s lifestyle


  • It’s a good idea to start feeding the laminitic horse a low-sugar diet. Most grains, grasses, and feeds will need to either be eliminated, changed, or reduced for some period of time. For chronic laminitis cases, long-term diet changes will help your horse lower their risk factors.


  • There are many supplements available for the laminitic horse.  Many support metabolic disorders that increase the risk of laminitis, and most are available over the counter.  Your vet may have some specialized supplements, too. 


  • Your vet and farrier may also suggest adding more shavings and using cushy stall mats. There are dozens of wonderful boots on the market that can be worn 27/4 until your horse has recovered.


  • Your job is to track your horse’s progress, monitor for increased digital pulses, and support your vet’s pain and inflammation management plan.



horse in buckets of ice

Ice can help.


Knowing the signs of laminitis is the first step towards better health for your horse!


There are a lot of super resources out there for horses and laminitis.


One of them is Fran Jurga’s Hoof Blog. You can also read more about laminitis here:

First aid for laminitis

Laminitis myths

Acute and chronic laminitis

Help prevent laminitis

Risk factors for laminitis

Fall is risky for laminitis

Subtle signs your horse is lame


How the digital pulse “works”


How to find the digital pulse


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03/11/2024 02:59 pm GMT

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