The longer I have been involved with horses the more I am seeing that laminits and founder are not the dining room table talk that I had as a child. Most people are not aware of the dangers that leaving a horse unattended on grass can bring, so what is founder? What causes it? How do I manage it? Let's explore these questions and more.
According to the AAEP (American associates of Equine Practitioners) there are several forms of founder, we are focusing specifically on grass founder in this particular blog as it is very common in our area of the Shenandoah Valley where the grass is incredibly lush in spring and summer.
Laminitis, or founder is the swelling of the laminae in the hoof that causes extreme pain. The laminae are an accordion like structure that are located within the hoof. Check out this picture of a healthy laminae compared to a very unhealthy laminae.
The hoof on the left is far less deteriorated than the hoof on the right. Not only are the hoofs impacted with this internal pain, but the coffin bones can in fact turn causing no other choice, but euthanasia. This is all caused by the sugar fructans located in grass. When a high amount of fructans enters the horse's large intestine it causes an over development of bacteria that interfere with the laminae in horse.
Pretty scary right? The good news is Founder is something that you can manage, if not all together avoid. Here are some tips to help you with managing your horse on the lush green grass:
First and foremost always ask if a horse you are buying has had experience with founder and learn how to see signs of chronic founder. In feet you can see rotation or sinking like pictured below in horses with chronic founder issues.
Not all laminitis is chronic, so even after you very carefully research your new horse you should be aware that EVERY horse can founder. It may be less common for a younger horse, or horses of certain breeds, but it can happen to any horse at any time so you must always be vigilant. If you notice your horse putting on an excess amount of weight and displaying a crest in their neck, then it may be time to pull them off the grass into a stall or dry-lot. If you are unable to do this then allow the grass to grow to where you can see seed heads being produced (the shorter the grass the more sugar content!), or muzzle your horse in order to manage their weight intake. Once a horse founders once it becomes more likely to suffer from chronic founder issues down the line, so prevention is key with this particular disease.
It is important to note that minis, ponies, and drafts are far more likely to have issues with laminitis and founder. Here at the rescue we keep our minis on a dry-lot 24/7 and turn them out on grass a few times a week as a treat. We have never had an issue with them foundering (despite them all having chronic founder issues), and they are sound and able to do their respective jobs. So yes preventing founder is very important, but also don't let founder stop you from getting a perfect horse, just know that it may make a little more work and cost a little extra money in muzzles and hay!