Horse Care

What is a foundered horse?

The terms “founder” and “laminitis” are often used interchangeably, but they refer to different stages and severities of a similar hoof-related condition in horses.

Both involve inflammation and damage to the sensitive laminae that connect the hoof wall to the coffin bone within the hoof capsule.

The key difference between laminitis and founder lies in the extent of the damage and the progression of the condition.

Laminitis is the condition that causes founder. It’s the initial stage, where inflammation of the laminae occurs.

During laminitis the soft laminae tissue in the hoof begins to die due to lack of blood flow.

The laminae hold the coffin bone in place and attaches it to the hoof wall. Once the laminae die, it can no longer do its job of holding the coffin bone in place.

As the condition progresses (and if left untreated) the coffin bone can begin to rotate and slip downward toward the sole of the foot and even through the sole of the foot.

Laminitis can be acute or chronic and is characterised by symptoms such as lameness, heat in the hooves, and increased digital pulse.

Laminitis is a symptom or result of an underlying issue, which could range from dietary problems to systemic illnesses.

Early and aggressive treatment at the laminitis stage may prevent further structural damage to the hoof, potentially allowing the horse to recover fully or partially.

Horses that have suffered from laminitis are at higher risk for future episodes.

Founder is an advanced or chronic laminitis that has led to structural changes in the hoof, often including the rotation or sinking of the coffin bone.

When a horse “founders,” the laminae have been damaged to the point where they can no longer adequately support the coffin bone, leading to these severe changes.

Founder is often the result of untreated or poorly managed laminitis, and its implications are usually more serious, sometimes causing permanent lameness or requiring euthanasia in extreme cases.

Stretching of the laminae with laminitis.

What causes laminitis?

  • Overeating on grains or lush pasture, leading to carbohydrate overload
  • Stress, caused by factors like illness, surgery, or long periods of transportation
  • Hormonal imbalances often seen in horses with metabolic conditions such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome or Cushing’s Disease
  • Excessive weight-bearing on one hoof due to an injury on the opposite leg
  • Severe infections or systemic illnesses

Clinical signs of founder can range from mild to severe, including but not limited to:

  • Lameness, especially when walking on hard surfaces
  • Heat in the hooves
  • Increased digital pulse in the affected hooves
  • Pain when pressure is applied to the sole
  • Behavioural changes due to pain, like shifting weight or reluctance to move

Managing a horse with founder often requires a long-term commitment and regular consultations with a veterinarian and a farrier.

Without proper management, the condition can lead to severe complications, including permanent lameness or even euthanasia.

Can laminitis be cured?

The term “cure” can be a bit misleading when talking about laminitis in horses.

While the acute symptoms of the condition can often be managed and sometimes reversed if caught early and treated aggressively, it’s crucial to understand that a horse that has had laminitis is at a greater risk of developing it again.

Therefore, management becomes a critical long-term strategy for these horses.

In the acute phase, immediate veterinary intervention is essential.

The focus is on reducing inflammation and pain, as well as treating the underlying cause.

This can include anti-inflammatory medications, cryotherapy (icing the feet), and mechanical support to stabilize the hoof capsule.

If treatment is successful, the inflammation resolves without permanent damage to the laminae, and the horse may return to its previous level of activity.

However, the underlying predisposing factors—such as metabolic issues, diet, or other health conditions—must be managed to prevent recurrence.

In chronic cases, or those where the coffin bone has rotated or sunk, the prognosis is more guarded.

While it’s possible to manage the condition and provide a reasonable quality of life for the horse, complete recovery is less likely.

Corrective shoeing, specialised pads, and ongoing hoof care play a significant role in managing chronic laminitis.

Lifestyle changes, including diet modification and exercise, are often necessary to manage underlying conditions like Equine Metabolic Syndrome or Cushing’s disease.

How is laminitis treated?

Treatment of laminitis in horses involves a combination of medical, mechanical, and lifestyle interventions, tailored to each individual case.

Immediate action is crucial to minimise damage to the sensitive laminae in the hoof.

Here’s a general outline of how laminitis is typically treated:

  1. Immediate veterinary intervention: As soon as laminitis is suspected, it’s imperative to consult a veterinarian for diagnosis and a treatment plan. Diagnostic tests may include radiographs (X-rays) to assess any changes or rotation in the coffin bone.
  2. Anti-inflammatory medication: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like phenylbutazone are often administered to control inflammation and pain. It’s essential to use these under the guidance of a veterinarian, as overuse can lead to other complications such as gastrointestinal ulcers.
  3. Hoof support: Mechanical support is crucial in stabilising the hoof and reducing pressure on the laminae. This could involve specialised shoeing, foam pads, or even hoof casts. A skilled farrier who is experienced in dealing with laminitic horses is invaluable for this aspect of treatment.
  4. Cryotherapy: Icing the affected hooves can be beneficial in the acute phase to reduce inflammation. This is more commonly done in severe cases or in a veterinary hospital setting.
  5. Dietary management: Nutrition plays a significant role in managing laminitis. Horses are usually put on a low-carbohydrate and low-sugar diet to prevent further metabolic imbalances. Your veterinarian can help formulate a suitable diet plan.
  6. Identifying and treating underlying causes: Often laminitis is a symptom of another problem, such as Cushing’s disease or Equine Metabolic Syndrome. Addressing the underlying condition is vital for long-term management.
  7. Regular monitoring: Frequent check-ups by both a veterinarian and a farrier are essential for assessing the horse’s progress and making necessary adjustments to the treatment plan.
  8. Lifestyle changes: Controlled exercise may be beneficial, but only under veterinary guidance. Turnout areas may need to be modified to ensure they are soft enough to not cause additional hoof stress, and rigorous exercise programs may need to be curtailed.
  9. Pain management: Pain is a significant concern in laminitic horses and may require ongoing medication or alternative therapies such as acupuncture.

It’s important to understand that managing laminitis often involves a long-term commitment to adapt various aspects of a horse’s care.

Treatment efficacy can vary from horse to horse, and what works for one animal may not be effective for another. Regular veterinary consultations are essential for monitoring the horse’s condition and adapting the treatment plan as needed.

If a horse gets laminitis, is it permanent?

The permanence of laminitis in horses can vary significantly depending on several factors: the severity of the condition, how quickly it’s diagnosed and treated, and the effectiveness of ongoing management strategies.

In some cases, if laminitis is caught early and managed effectively, a horse may recover and return to its previous level of activity.

However, it’s important to note that a horse that has suffered from laminitis is at higher risk for future episodes.

In mild cases, where immediate and aggressive treatment is administered, the inflammation can often be controlled, potentially allowing for a full recovery.

In such instances, it may not result in permanent damage to the hoof structure or laminae.

But even in these cases, ongoing vigilance and management are essential to prevent recurrence.

For more severe or chronic cases, where there is structural damage to the hoof, including rotation or sinking of the coffin bone, laminitis can lead to long-term or even permanent lameness.

Such cases often require lifelong management, including specialised hoof care, dietary restrictions, and possibly ongoing medication for pain and inflammation.

Even with the best care, some horses with severe laminitis may not regain full soundness and may continue to experience varying levels of discomfort or pain.

So, while laminitis is not necessarily “permanent” in every case, it often has long-lasting implications for a horse’s health and well-being.

Management becomes a key focus, as does careful monitoring for signs of recurrence.

The term “cured” is generally not used, given the complex nature of the condition and the ongoing risk for future episodes.

The goal of treatment and management is to provide the horse with the best quality of life possible while minimising the risk of future laminitic episodes.

Can you ride a foundered horse?

The possibility of riding a foundered horse depends on various factors such as the severity of the founder, the effectiveness of treatment, the stage of recovery, and the ongoing management of the condition.

Founder, or chronic laminitis, can result in significant structural changes to the hoof, including the rotation or sinking of the coffin bone.

This can lead to long-term or permanent lameness and pain.

In mild to moderate cases where the horse has been successfully treated and is under effective long-term management, some horses may return to a level of work that could include riding.

Consult your veterinarian and an experienced farrier for a thorough evaluation and a customised management plan.

If riding is deemed possible, it would likely start with light work on a soft, forgiving surface and be closely monitored for any signs of discomfort or relapse.

A specialised shoeing and padding strategy might also be necessary to provide additional support to the hoof structures.

In severe cases, where there has been substantial rotation or sinking of the coffin bone, the likelihood of returning to a level of soundness that allows for riding is greatly diminished.

For these horses, the focus is generally on providing a pain-free, comfortable quality of life, which may preclude any form of ridden work.

The primary objective in managing a foundered horse is to provide the best quality of life possible, which may or may not include riding.

It’s critical to work closely with a qualified veterinarian and farrier to develop a suitable management and treatment plan tailored to your horse’s specific condition.

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