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Feeding the Laminitic Horse

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A horse’s dream residence would consist of rolling, lush pastureland stretching for miles, allowing the horse to graze peacefully and uninterrupted. There would be a sunset on the horizon, a light breeze ruffling the horse’s mane, and warm sun fading on its back. Despite how much horse owners would love to provide this beautiful setting for their horse, for many, it is an unattainable dream. Many horses are prone to or have laminitis, an inflammatory disease of the hoof laminae. Thick, green pastureland is typically high in sugar, which, when too much is eaten, heightens the severity of laminitis the inflammation of the hoof laminae. In the most severe laminitis cases, the hoof laminae can separate from the hoof wall, causing the toe-shaped coffin bone to rotate inside the hoof or sink deeper towards the sensitive sole. A sunken coffin bone causes painful pressure buildup on the bottom of the soles. This causes the recognizable “standing back” position a horse does when suffering from sunken, pressured coffin bones. So, if forage that is high in sugar is so bad for a laminitic horse, then how is an owner supposed to feed for optimal nutrition?

To begin, certain horses are more prone to developing laminitis than others. For instance, laminitis is quickly developed in shorter animals with large necks that become rotund easily. Sadly, this classification fits most of the pony category – that is why ponies wearing muzzles in the pasture are such a common sight! Horses with a high body condition score (BCS) of a 7 or higher are also more likely to develop laminitis, as their metabolism and the ability to break down sugars is weakened. There is a high correlation between horses that are both obese and have insulin resistance with the onset of laminitis, meaning that horses with either of these conditions are far more likely to develop the disease. Horses who are stressed, such as those with recent diet or stabling changes, are at a higher risk along with those that already have endocrine diseases, such as Cushing’s disease (PPID) or equine metabolic syndrome (EMS).

The first and foremost rule to preventing the onset of laminitis is to limit a horse’s exposure to lush, green pastureland that is high in sugar. When feed/pasture that is high in NSCs, like sugar and starch, are consumed by these higher-risk horses, the end products of digestion can cause toxic components to be created, leading to inflammation in the hoof laminae. It is best to avoid feeds that are high in soluble carbohydrates, as some horses are at a higher risk of developing laminitis. Carbolyte® is a great choice for horses needing to limit starch and sugar intake, as it is low in nonstructural carbohydrates (NSCs) such as glucose, fructose, sucrose, lactose, and starch.

A balanced diet and adequate exercise have proven to be the best preventative measures for laminitis. If a horse has not yet developed laminitis, then routine exercise is crucial for those who are prone, such as ponies and overweight horses. These horses are more likely to overgorge themselves on lush green grass. However, if a horse has already developed laminitis and is unable to continue work, a structured diet plan is crucial for the horse’s health and longevity. It is important to only feed a horse according to its energy requirements so that overfeeding is avoided. Therefore, a horse who is retired in pasture may not require as much feed as a horse in work. For many, a forage diet is adequate. While soaking hay used to be recommended to reduce the hay’s sugar content, it is now encouraged against due to the nutrients and dry matter that is lost in the soaking process. For horses trying to lose weight, this is especially important, as they must receive their daily intake of nutrients. Veterinarians recommend conducting hay analyses to determine the level of NSCs so that the least number of soluble carbohydrates is given. If this approach is taken, a ration balancer should be given to the horse to provide nutrients. Excel Equine® produces Enrichment®, a ration balancer that can be fed as a top dress on grain or by itself. Enrichment® is designed to deliver essential vitamins, minerals, and high-quality protein. Lastly, as always, it is best to avoid feeds that are high in NSCs when feeding a laminitic horse. Another supplement that may be beneficial to the laminitic horse is the use of a hoof supplement. Hoof Pro Plus® provides optimal levels of protein, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals to promote quality hoof growth and maintenance.

It is important to maintain a regular turn-out schedule and perform pasture maintenance to prevent the laminitic horse from developing further symptoms. The NSC content in green grass develops symptoms of laminitis faster in horses prone to the disease than others. Considering such, it is best to limit free-choice grazing on lush pasturelands to laminitis prone-horses. It is best to turn out horses when the sugars in the grass are not at their highest, such as in the early morning. The NSC content in grass is at its lowest between a couple of hours before sunrise to a couple of hours after. Spring is the time of year known for its high-sugar grass, yet late summer and early fall are also high-risk periods. If a horse must be restricted from grazing all day, do not keep in a stall, as it will cause the horse unnecessary stress and raise its insulin concentrations. Rather, turn the horse out in a dry lot, if you have one, with another horse for company. If there are no available dry lots, it is best to turn out a horse with a grazing muzzle in its normal pasture. If using this method, remember to check the horse’s body condition score regularly to monitor weight gain when given a grazing option.

While laminitis can be a frightening condition, as it can be life-threatening, the effects can be minimized in conjunction with a proper diet plan. Feeding a horse a quality feed at recommended amounts ensures that the horse does not have to worry about laminitis developments.