Founder and your horse’s foot

Laminitis or Founder are among the words most-feared by every horse owner that has ever seen a case, and from a veterinary point of view can be one of the most frustrating and disappointing cases, and also some of the most uplifting and rewarding cases to deal with, depending on the end results. It is also one of the more mysterious of horse conditions, and we are still a long way from fully understanding the whole mechanism which creates the problem. What we do know is that the damage caused to the horse’s foot can be permanent and even life threatening.

To try and explain the process in a nutshell (it is much more complicated than I have room to explain, and I haven’t got all the answers either!), the horse stands on the edge of his middle finger’s fingernail (the hoof). This is normally VERY strongly attached to the bone underneath (the Pedal bone) by a whole lot of meshed “fingers” which lace together in layers called “lamina”. The term “Laminitis” refers to inflammation of these tissues. Then the “glue” that holds these together loosens and there is tearing apart of the laminae which is very painful. Imagine having someone tearing off your fingernail slowly, when you can’t do a thing about it! This can continue to the degree that the pedal bone is torn from its connection with the hoof by a combination of the weight of the horse and the pressure of the deep digital flexor tendon pulling it downward and causing it to rotate the front downwards, or in some cases simply lose grip altogether and “sink” onto the top of the sole – an unfortunately incurable situation.

One of the most common causes of laminitis is a diet high in carbohydrate (for example grain or pellets). Of particular interest are “fructans” – plant sugars which are particularly high in fresh lush green grass, as we have seen over the last few months. There has also been a run of founder cases over the same period, which is the reason for this article.

One of the fallacies I want to explode is one that assumes founder only occurs in fat horses. Although It is certainly more common in these, I have seen founder in normal-conditioned horses that have had access to large amounts of carbohydrate – such as when they’ve broken into a feed shed or silo, or gone out into a lush green paddock for the first time. They can also founder from multiple other causes, such as fevers, severe infections, colic, surgery, pregnancy, concussion and stress.

With such a range of possible initiating causes, you can see how complex the problem is and that makes it just that much more difficult to deal with that poor unfortunate horse who is standing right back on his heels, with his hind legs forward under him to take his weight.

The problem with treating founder is:

  1. Not all fat horses get founder
  2. Not being fat doesn’t guarantee not getting founder
  3. Some horses get very mild founder
  4. Some horses get very severe, Very Quickly!
  5. Once they get founder they will be more likely to get founder again in the future
  6. The damage done to the foot – especially if there is some rotation of the pedal bone – is likely to be permanent and may cause other ancillary problems with the foot.

Diagnosis of founder is not usually very difficult, but judging the degree of change in the foot is altogether different. Horses have different pain tolerances and may have serious pathology of the foot but be less painful to outside observation than one with significantly less changes. Often Radiographs (X-rays) are required to assess the degree of changes in the foot, and therefore to guide the vet and the farrier in the ongoing management of the feet.

Treating the foundered horse is all about co-operation. The vet needs to accurately diagnose the extent of the problem, the farrier needs to treat the foot properly and the owner needs to do what is required to maintain the horse during the treatment period and afterwards to attempt to prevent another bout of founder.

The take-home message is “No Hoof – No Horse”. Be aware of your horse’s way of moving. If it begins shuffling or walking on its heels, or if it is lying down and reluctant to get up, do think of founder (laminitis) as a possibility, and remember, founder CAN mean the end of your horse’s usefulness and possibly even its life. Leaving it for a “couple of days to see what happens” may be the difference between a good result and a bad one, so act early, and get a vet to it sooner rather than later. Your horse will thank you for it!