Sunday, February 28, 2016

Springtime means sunshine, green grass, and risk of laminitis!

by Barbara Noble

With the warmer weather and another early spring, laminitis is a good topic for all horse owners to have on their mind. Our northwestern grass will soon be growing high, and also high in sugar. All horse owners could benefit from knowing about the risk of laminitis, and being proactive in preventing it, whether or not their horse is showing symptoms. Horses prone to laminitis of the most common variety are thought to be horses with an inherited gene which predisposes them to obesity (the easy keeper type) and a different metabolism of carbohydrates. Even if your horse does not have laminitis, you can be proactive and possibly avoid this condition altogether.

The lamina are the interconnected tissues that hold the hoof—the hard outer shell—onto the coffin bone, which joins the hoof with the leg. Laminitis is a reaction in those interconnected tissues, the lamina, which loosens the hold between the hard hoof and the bone. The loosening causes the tissues to stretch or separate and even bleed and can be agonizingly painful for your horse.

If your horse has laminitis there are very important management steps to take: the management mantra for laminitis is “1) diagnosis 2) diet 3) trim 4) exercise”. All are important, though in this article I am focusing on step two—diet as a preventive measure.

Careful and knowledgeable grass management for your horse is crucial. Websites such as will give you up to date information on grass and more. I also recommend having your hay cored and analyzed so a balancing supplement can be formulated. Mineral balancing improves the overall health of the hoof and seems to also improve the way the horse handles glucose. Freedom Farm has its hay analyzed each year, and offers this kind of supplement for clients.

The actual cause of this carbohydrate-induced laminitis is high insulin. The insulin resistant (IR) horse, as they have come to be known, has an insulin level that without great diet control just keeps getting higher until the feet break down. The feeding of fat has also been demonstrated to support insulin resistance and is vigorously discouraged by the Yahoo Equine Cushings and Insulin Resistance Group.  In another article, I can provide various considerations related to ‘feeding fat’.

Human studies show a link between magnesium and insulin resistance with low levels making IR worse. This supports using magnesium in the hay balancing mix or being sure to include it as, for example, in a calming supplement.  Another mineral important in a negative way is iron. Iron overload in horses increases insulin resistance which you now know increases the chance of laminitis and is also found increased in Cushings disease.  The effects on a horse from a life with too much iron consumption can slowly be improved with diet balancing. Unlike humans who need a steady supply of iron in our food, horses have no mechanism for losing iron, except hemorrhage. The iron they take in just keeps building to a higher level.

Again, sugar and starch, which are carbohydrates, are high in our fresh spring grass. Manage and moderate your horse’s grass intake. Remember too that your horse’s metabolism may be changing. The young horse without diet issues may now be the middle aged horse with insulin resistance. Your veterinarian can do blood work checking for leptin resistance or even do insulin : glucose ratios to establish your horse’s baseline levels or to detect abnormalities.

Every year, people call Freedom Farm for help with their horses suffering from laminitis! Need your horse off grass? We have facilities for the healthy horse who needs to avoid grazing, and special pens for those who need time to recover. We'd much rather you catch it early! Contact Mary Gallagher by email or phone if you are concerned about your horses.


  1. I find it amusing you speak of laminitis in your column. I have a horse that is IR and has been laminitis free for 3 years since he came to our farm. First and Foremost most everyone knows if your Vetinarian is Sound Equine that a proactive rancher will "wash the hay" In washing the hay it removes the sugars. You should never put them on grass and have a specialized pen so they don't re-injure themselves. Washing the hay not only is good for the horse for digestive reasons. If anyone has ever been to a class on Colic-you will quickly see Horses have a very delicate digestive system and even a flat area where horses can get bound up. Washing the hay is the ONLY way to prevent them from becoming overweight, prevent diabetes and a host of other ailments. But most horse people are lazy. They think the old fashioned ways of horse care is to feed them twice a day, overloading the gutt and giving them dry hay which may be moldy. By washing the hay you are also washing out any impurities and Sound Equine loves the fact that we feed our horses 5 times a day in smaller portions that acts as if the horse is grazing naturally receiving the "natural moisture" that comes naturally. We provide the best of care for our horses. We put in 16 hour days, but is well worth it. We have gotten "acculations from all the Vets.Trainers, Ferriers in Clallam County and Tracy Kellis from Clallam County Sheriffs Dept. The horses are extremely healthy. Sound Equine uses our farm as an example of being "the best" in the business in Clallam County. Our Veterinarian graduated from Cornell University in upstate New York. We will be forever clients of Sound Equine. Our motto is You shouldn't have a horse if you're not willing to put in the time and effort to give them the best. A Clallam County Rancher

    1. Barbara Noble replies:

      Congratulations on your good management of your IR horse. To your other points:
      - Having an established relationship with a trusted veterinarian is indeed a
      powerful asset.
      - Weight gain is the result of more calories being eaten than are being used, from any food source.
      - Soaking hay is a proven, effective way to reduce the carbohydrate content of hay.
      - Pastured horses need especially careful management in the spring. The goal is to avoid laminitis before it starts.  Reducing, even eliminating, pasture in the spring may be necessary.

  2. Absolutely. Even a simple apple can take a horse out with laminitis. We had this I'll put it politely "a moron" She came by our home-helped herself to our horses and gave our IR horse an apple. We could of died when we found out from an unknown source. All horses are not the same. And neither are we. You have to treat each horse individually according to their specifics. I'm sure she thought she was doing something good for our horse when in fact she was HARMING HIM. Please pass onto your readers and clients to please ask before helping yourself to our beloved horses. We now have huge pillars, iron gates and "no trespassing signs up" Unfortunately a few have to ruin it for all. Keep doing a great job Freedom Farms!

  3. Thanks for commenting, Gary, and sorry so late in replying! Yes, the general public often needs a little education when it comes to how to treat horses. Generally, folks mean well. So sorry to hear of the risk to your IR horse. Hope they are doing okay!