How to feed a horse with laminitis

If you’re a horse or pony owner, chances are you’ve heard of laminitis at some point. Research indicates that 1 in 10 equines are affected by the condition each year and that it’s just as common as colic, which means it’s worth knowing a thing or two about what to feed -and what to avoid! The good news is that in many cases laminitis can be managed with low starch feed/supplements and by reducing carbohydrates. 

But first: Horse laminitis explained

Laminitis is the inflammation of the tissue located between your horse’s hoof wall and coffin bone, known as the laminae. When inflammation is present, these laminae structures become weakened and the bond between the hoof wall and coffin bone becomes compromised. The weight of the horse can then push the coffin bone towards the ground, ultimately causing the coffin bone to rotate. The rotation and/or sinking of the coffin bone, is commonly termed “founder.” Founder is the dreadful end result of laminitis.

 laminitic hoof vs healthy hoof

What horses are at risk of laminitis?

Laminitis can be caused by a broad range of factors, meaning all horses have the potential to suffer this affliction.
Obesity and carbohydrate overload are usually the first risk factors that spring to mind. But it’s important to highlight that laminitis can also be caused by multiple factors including Equine Metabolic Syndrome, insulin resistance, Cushing’s disease, hoof concussion, toxaemia, stressful events and in response to some medications.
This somewhat exhausting list goes some way towards explaining why there is so much talk about laminitis -It can be triggered by many different events!

Common symptoms of laminitis

You may be familiar with the classic “leaning back” pose of a laminitic horse. A horse exhibiting this trait is in pain and attempting to relieve the pressure off its feet. Whilst most common in the front feet, laminitis can affect all four feet. A laminitic horse may be reluctant to move or it may lie down to take the weight off its feet. An increased digital pulse is also a common sign.
Take swift action as soon as you spot signs of laminitis. Call your vet, who may work in conjunction with your farrier to diagnose the severity and map a path to recovery.

 Fig 1: Leaning back to relieve pressure. Fig 2: Lying down to take weight off the feet.
laminitis leaning back laminitis lying down
Fig 3: Exhibiting pain and a reluctance to move. Fig 4: Common points for feeling the digital pulse.
laminitis horse painful digital pulse points
Fig 5: Hoof testers to identify pain regions.
hoof testers laminitis


Laminitis and its relationship with carbohydrates

A common cause of laminitis is carbohydrate overload. The carbohydrates that we feed horses/ponies can be divided into two types: structural and non-structural. Structural carbohydrates are rich in fibre and are essential for the equine diet (e.g Teff hay). Non-structural carbohydrates are sugars and starches that contain more calories (Examples are oats, barley, corn, molasses and short, “lush” pasture). It’s these non-structural carbohydrates that can contribute to carbohydrate overload (and the onset of laminitis).

Feeding for laminitis recovery - Pasture

If your horse is afflicted by laminitis, one of the most important steps is to place the horse on low starch feed and to consider taking the horse off-pasture until the episode is resolved. For obese or insulin-resistant horses, high sugar pasture should be avoided so that their insulin sensitivity can improve.
When your horse does return to pasture, it’s important to manage its carbohydrate consumption. Pasture is particularly rich in non-structural carbohydrates during the spring and autumn and after rain. It may be best to restrict the grazing access of horses prone to laminitis, in conjunction with consuming low starch feed.

Pasture feeding tips for owners of horses prone to laminitis:

  • Horses/ponies predisposed to laminitis should have restricted access to grass pastures, particularly during the spring and autumn.
  • At other times of the year, limit the amount of turnout time each day (e.g. 1–3 hours) and turn horses out late at night (after 10:00pm) or early in the morning, removing them from pasture by mid-morning at the latest (before 7:00am, because non-structural carbohydrate levels are likely to be at their lowest late at night through early morning).
  • Alternatively, limit the size of the paddock by use of temporary fencing (strip grazing) or use a grazing muzzle.
  • Grazing should be avoided on the day/night a frost occurs. Sugars accumulate in the pasture during this event due to the grass being stressed.

Feeding for laminitis recovery - Hard feed

Once the roughage portion of the diet is established (for a horse affected by laminitis), the next step is to take a closer look at your horse’s vitamin and mineral requirements. As well as shifting away from a carbohydrate-heavy diet and towards low starch feed, it’s important to make sure your horse is consuming everything it needs to repair laminae damage and have the best chance of healing from laminitis. 

Never starve a laminitic horse

It’s a big mistake to place a horse suffering from obesity-induced laminitis on a starvation diet. Instead, the horse should be given low starch diet rich in nutrients so that the laminae is encouraged to heal.
Horses require a minimum of 1.5% of their bodyweight in roughage per day for optimal health and wellbeing. For a laminitic prone horse/pony, low sugar roughage sources such as Teff hay, Rhodes grass hay, lucerne hay, beet pulp or soaked grass hay can meet their roughage requirements.

High starch feeds should be avoided, including treats such as carrots and apples. To manage and prevent laminitis from occurring, choose a low sugar and starch diet. Look for a combined sugar and starch content of less than 10%.

Laminitis and the horse owner

There is no question that laminitis is a painful and debilitating condition that is sadly all too common. As horse owners, we can best support our equine companions by managing risk factors, managing diet, and by consulting equine health professionals.
For further advice, start a conversation with your vet, farrier, or by reaching out to Nutrikey. We welcome the opportunity to discuss your horse’s nutritional needs.

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