Beware early laminitis this Spring
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Beware early laminitis this Spring

After a mild and very wet winter, the grass is bursting through with vigour, in fact, it hasn’t actually stopped growing all winter. Laminitis will be around early this year so if you have fatties, good-doers or native ponies then you need to start to think about how you will manage the initial flourish of spring grass.

The key with laminitis is to be proactive, don’t look at the calendar, look out of the window at the current state of your grass. Your horse or pony might still be on spartan winter grazing but look at areas which are not being grazed and you will see the true extent of what is going on. Horses will nibble the shoots on bare pasture as they come through and it is easy not to see what is really happening right under their noses.

Year-round management

Don’t wait until the first episode of laminitis has happened but be on the case and ahead of the game – prevent it from even occurring at all. Laminitic prone horses and ponies need constant management whatever the season. Here are some key tips to help you manage a horse or pony that has had laminitis already or one you think may be susceptible.

  • Evaluate the horse or pony realistically – if you have a native pony or a cob even if they have not had laminitis, manage them as if they have and you are less likely to get caught out. Once a horse has had laminitis, it becomes far more likely to get it again and this can begin a cycle which is very hard to get out of and very tough to manage – prevention is always better than cure
  • Keep your horse’s weight down – whatever the breed or type of horse, no animal benefits from being overweight even if they would not immediately be considered in an ‘at risk’ group. Weight is not the only factor relevant to laminitis as thin or lightweight horses and ponies can get it too but it is part of the picture. Review your horse’s diet and make sure there are appropriate exercise levels as part of his management routine
  • Winter weight loss – don’t worry about winter weight loss, horses and ponies are supposed to become thinner in the winter. Compensating for this by feeding them extra calories will bring them to the beginning of spring already carrying an excess of pounds. Review your winter feeding protocols and also your rugging practices. Most native ponies in good health don’t need a rug at all unless they are clipped
  • Low sugar feeds – if you are feeding a hard feed, avoid anything with cereals and also added sugar like molasses. You need feeds with a naturally occurring (sugar is in all feeds to some degree) sugar level of under 10% and these feeds are usually fibre based. Many low calories fibre feeds are advertised as being suitable for laminitics but always read the label carefully
  • Pay attention to your horse’s feet – always keep a vigilant eye on how the horse’s foot appears and feels. Is there any tenderness? Does the white line seem stretched or elongated? Is there any blood in the white line? Does the foot feel hot and is there a bounding digital pulse?

Managing the pasture

Most people look forward to turning their horses out onto rolling acres of lush grass come springtime but for the owners of a laminitic horse or pony, the sight of luminous green acreage fills them with dread. Your horse will need to go in the field so here are some management tips to help you through those first few weeks of spring:-

  • Limit pasture time – ponies can eat 1% of their body weight in dry matter in a three-hour window when out in the field so limit the time spent at grass. To alleviate boredom, turn out twice in the day for two shorter periods
  • Strip graze – divide the area into strips or smaller paddocks so you restrict how much actual grass the horse can reach
  • Create a grass-free turnout area – a sand or woodchip area is ideal for horses who need to be outside but can only have a limited amount of actual grazing. Always offer alternative forage such as soaked hay. Be aware that ingestion of sand can cause other problems like sand colic
  • Use a grazing muzzle – these can work well but only if the grass is of a certain height. They can limit grass intake by up to 80%
  • Turn out when fructan levels are lower – this is usually the last thing at night to the early morning but it can be hard to generalise as there are many variable factors
  • Graze known pastures – only use paddocks which have been well grazed and appropriately managed

Know your horse

Early signs of discomfort vary from horse to horse but a sharp-eyed owner can spot those minuscule or subtle signs that an animal is feeling sore or ‘footy’. If you suspect laminitis, always remove the animal from pasture immediately and confine to the stable. Feed soaked hay and treat the inflammation with bute or a similar NSAID – Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory. Horses with mild laminitis will go sound pretty quickly with box rest and medication and many people make the mistake of turning them out too soon which starts the whole process all over again. Don’t delay in taking veterinary advice, it will cost you more in the long run in terms of heartache and vet’s bills if you don’t manage an initial episode of laminitis quickly and successfully.

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