In the UK we are subject to a climate unlike any other; our seasons can change almost within a day with heavy rainfall soon replaced with bright sunlight. As we now enter Spring and move towards Summer, there are characteristic signs of the changes in the seasons. To most people lush green fields are a fantastic sign of better weather, longer days and more sunlight – but to owners of ponies or horses who suffer with laminitis this is the start of one of the most difficult times of the year.
Spring grass is a leading cause of new and relapsed cases of laminitis – this year being no exception with a huge number of cases already reported. Following the heavy rains of the winter and the mild inclimate weather throughout the past two months the grass has quickly grown and offers our domesticated equines a concentrated source of sugars, highly appealing to them but dangerous in excessive amounts.
Laminitis is a complex, multifaceted and potentially fatal condition but with careful management laminitic ponies can live a full and happy life. However when considering turnout, exercise and management during the Spring, all owners must take extra consideration to limiting the risks of a laminitic episode occurring.
What is laminitis?
Laminitis is a condition affecting the hoof of the horse which occurs when the laminae become starved of nutrients and oxygen and cause structural changes within the hoof. A hoof is made up of layers, the outer of which is a hard shell called the hoof wall which houses and protects an inner sensitive layer which is known as the laminae. If the flow of blood to this living layer of laminae is compromised, inflammation begins to occur within the hoof and when limited to a compact area leads to immense pain for the pony or horse. When the laminae are starved of oxygen and the supplies of nutrient rich blood are cut off, the cells in the tissue will damage and die. Within the structure of the hoof the laminae act to support what is known as the pedal bone which is involved in distribution of the weight of the pony or horse. In severe cases where laminitis has progressed over a period of time, structural changes occur where the laminae can no longer support the weight of the pedal bone. This causes the pedal bone to sink and rotate at an angle; this can be anything from mild rotation through to the bone protruding from the sole of the foot. Laminitis can be found in all four feet but is most commonly occurring in the fronts.
Signs that your pony or horse has laminitis are normally easily distinguishable – he will be lame and can even be hesitant to move at all. If he lays down to rest he may struggle to get up again and many laminitics will spend a great deal of time laid down to relieve the pain in their feet. A digital pulse can be felt in feet which are suffering and the area may be hot (although heat in itself is not a sign of laminitis). In very severe cases the horse may lean back onto his back hooves when stood still which will look almost like he is rocking to relieve the pressure on his front feet.
Prevention of Laminitis when Spring grass sprouts!
Although some horses and ponies are more prone to developing episodes of laminitis than others, no horse is immune from this condition so it is recommended always to watch out for signs. When we are aware of the different causes and factors which exacerbate symptoms we are able to make adjustments and take sensible precautions to consider ongoing management of those equines who are at risk.
- Restricted Grazing! This is the first and most important management factor. Time at grass and type of pasture must be carefully managed as a great deal of sugar can be ingested in a very short time on spring grass. The exercise that a pony gains from moving around and the mental stimulation of grazing and interaction with other horses boosts his overall wellbeing and reduces stress however many native or small ponies are greedy and will not lift their noses from the ground.. It is highly recommended to either limit turnout time or by fencing off small areas and “strip graze”. Don’t forget that small ponies and hungry horses have a knack of escaping when the grass looks greener on the other side so it is sensible to invest in electric fencing rather than just using standard fencing or tape without a charge.
- Consider investing in a grazing muzzle. Some horses and ponies will remove these straight away while others will wear the muzzle with no problems. To prevent rubbing or irritation (and reduce the risk of this being removed!) it is very important to ensure the muzzle is the right size and it is fitted correctly, you can always line the sides with some sheepskin or fur to help with chafing. It is recommended not to use a muzzle for prolonged periods as some horses can become frustrated – the ideal length of grass should be at least 3 inches as below this the grass will not protrude through the holes in traditional muzzles. Newer designs like the Greenguard have been designed to take all these factors into account and can be worth the additional cost for owners of laminitics.
- As with making dietary adjustments in any horse, you should not make any sudden changes to the horse’s feed – this includes both changes in bucket feed as well as changing pasture. Any changes should be made over a period of 4-6 days with gradual introduction of the new feed to allow time for the internal bacteria to adjust to digesting the changed diet and prevent toxin build ups which can contribute to laminitis episodes.
- By the time we are reaching May and June, frosty mornings are almost over but there can still be the odd day where there is a tinge of dew or frost on the ground. If this is the case, make sure you to not turn your pony out on frosty grass – when this grass freezes it will cause a concentration in the fructan content which can overwhelm the horse and trigger the laminitic processes.
- Keep your horse in fit and healthy condition and do not allow him to become overweight –fat deposits on the body are dangerous signs , particularly across the crest, either side of the withers and along the rump and should always be taken seriously. Use a weight tape to regularly record your horses weight and keep a record of the time of day and date along with the measurement, this will allow you to quickly identify any changes in condition. Keep your horse on a gradual and regular exercise programme – nothing keeps a horse in better condition than frequent work, it will also relieve boredom in a stabled horse and help release endorphins to make both you and him feel better!
- Inevitably a laminitic pony will need to spend time stabled over the summer months and will require supplementary forage. Always soak hay before feeding and avoid any form of dried grass or haylage. It is particularly important to soak hay if it is from a new crop to ensure the sugars are completely removed, ideally each net should be soaked for a minimum of 12 hours and should be rinsed in cold water to remove residue sugars from the water before feeding. Add another net on top to restrict the speed at which the pony eats the hay and split this between a couple of nets throughout the day to prevent boredom.
- If you have discovered that when you try to restrict feeds then your horse eats his bedding it is important not to use straw in his stable. This contains nutrients he does not need. Instead opt for wood shavings, paper or wood pellets Not only do they provide extra cushioning for the feet but the horse or pony will not eat them.
- Ground becomes harder over the drier seasons and trauma is a trigger in some cases of laminitis. Try to avoid concussion to the feet by avoiding riding or jumping on hard ground. Regular appointments with your farrier are vital to maintain the health of the hoof– trimming feet and remedial shoeing can even out the pressure on the feet and balance the horse. Additionally your farrier may be first to notice discomfort or changes in the hoof.
It is very important that you remain vigilant – although these tips are mainly for management of laminitis in the spring and summer. It can peak again in Autumn and can in fact occur at any time of the year. Even once your horse is sound and in good health it is vital to continue with preventative measures throughout the year to maintain your horse’s health and wellbeing and prevent future attacks of this difficult condition.