No Hoof, No Horse

... and on the eighth day God created the horse in perfect image, to romp, graze, gallop, play and make manure wherever it darn well pleases, in divine grace.

It doesn’t matter if the animal is a $25.00 pony belonging to a country farm girl or a $2.500,00.00 racehorse about to run a stake for a high dollar premium; lameness can cause emotional and economical problems, and trauma within families and business partnerships.

Laminitis, or Founder, is a disease which affects the feet of horses, usually the front feet.

The term laminitis means inflammation of the sensitive laminae in the hoof. The coffin bone forms the center of the horse’s foot inside and it meets the outside hoof horn by way of this sensitive laminae. The laminae from the bone and the laminae from the hoof dovetail one another and hold everything together, somewhat like tiny cogs inside a timepiece.

When these laminae become inflamed, the condition is called laminitis, or founder. It may be acute or chronic.

Vets and Blacksmiths dispute a difference between laminitis and founder. Is laminitis just inflammation of the laminae while founder includes rotation of the coffin bone? Or is it vice-versa? Is fever always present? Most Horsemen don’t care; they just know their horse is lame and in trouble.

One thing everyone does agree on, however, is that the disease is little understood, elusive and incurable. Early detection is key to management and can make the difference between a healthy, "workably sound" horse and a worthless, unsound horse or even one that has to be destroyed.

Founder is always an emergency; call the Vet.

When swelling occurs within the horse’s hoof, there is no room for expansion because the sole and hoof wall are very firm. This leads to very severe pain.

There are 5 main causes of founder:

  1. Allergy.
  2. Consumption of too much corn or grain.
  3. Consumption of new, lush grass in springtime.
  4. Standing too long in shipping, such as in a boat.
  5. Retained afterbirth in the mare at foaling or abortion in the mare. (1)

Other causes can be fat ponies eating too much food with no exercise, road founder or hard work on hard surfaces and consuming cold water after hard work. I have even heard of horses foundering because of thunder and lightning. Sometimes founder develops as a complication of other diseases.

The horse’s feet will be hot and sensitive to the touch and his temperature can rise, sometimes just one or two degrees, sometimes as high as six degrees.

Standing the horse in a cold stream or hosing his feet with a cold water is recommended until the Vet arrives. Butazolidin or "Bute" is administered as it is an anti-inflammatory.

This may be a twice daily chore as per Vet’s orders to get a hold on the inflammation. The Vet will tap and squeeze the hoof with the hoof tester to gauge reaction of the horse.

The feet are hot because of increased arterial blood supply, along with inflammation. The throbbing of the arteries running down either side of the pastern can be felt with the fingers and the Vet will perform this simple test, also.

If the lameness is in the front two feet, when asked to move, the horse will stretch his head out in front of him, and rock back on his hindquarters, bringing his legs underneath in an effort to take the weight off the forefeet.

If the founder is very severe, all four feet may be affected and the horse may refuse to stand up at all. He will lie flat out on his side for abnormally long periods of time.

In chronic founder, the sole of the hoof drops down, becoming convex instead of concave.

Rings or bulges appear on the outside of the hoof. Horsemen call these ridges "founder rings" and they tend to gather around the coronet. (2) A horse that has foundered badly will clearly have these markings on his hooves; you don’t want that horse when you’re looking to buy.

Laminitis can be considered chronic when the coffin bone rotates within the hoof, a situation when the laminae connecting the hoof wall and coffin bone actually breaks down and falls apart. Toxins are the cause, usually histamine, as this changes the permeability of the blood vessels in the laminae. (3) This can happen from three to five days up to several weeks after onset of founder.

In the most severe cases, the hooves fall off or the coffin bone punches through the bottom of the sole. (4) You may hear Horsemen saying the scale of 1-10 rotation degrees, with 10 being the most severe. When the coffin bone punches through the bottom of the foot it is basically a death sentence for the horse and it must be destroyed.

Horses with acute founder can be brought back to be usably sound, depending on the cause of the founder and speed in which the horse is treated. Corrective trimming and shoeing, where the heels are rasped and trimmed as much as possible, and the toe is also brought back, are among steps taken to help the animal. A wide bar shoe is placed on the foot to protect it and the sole, also implemented by Vet, Blacksmith and Owner.

Sometimes shoe pads are put in place to prevent further dropping of the sole and anti-inflammatory medications are prescribed by the Vet. X- rays are taken to show whether the coffin bone has rotated and to what degree. There are even hoof re-section operations done by the Vet to help with bone fragments or pressure relief.

Over a long period of time these measures can slowly restore the hooves to a near original state.

Caring for a foundered animal requires very strict diligence on the part of the owner for the rest of its natural life. Bland diets of no grain and plain, first cutting hay, along with very minimal or no grass consumption, are usually recommended by the Vet. Turnout on dirt lots for exercise is the norm.

There is also the possibility of re-founder and abscesses, endless soaking of feet

Many families choose to try to save their animal, sinking thousands of dollars into Vets and Blacksmiths, even if the horse is never rideable again.

Founder is definitely a traumatic, eye-opening experience for any Horseman, following along with the Vet and Blacksmith throughout the entire ordeal, becoming quasi experts on founder and hooves.

The old adage of an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure holds very true in keeping your horse sound. Putting grain in a separate room behind a closed door is always good as horses will literally eat themselves to death if they get into it, not knowing when to stop. In the spring, be careful of dawn to dusk turnout in pastures as lush new grass can be a killer.

Gradually acclimate the horse to the grass in larger increments of minutes every three or four days until summer. Hand grazing is even recommended.

If a mare has a baby, call the Vet and let the professional examine her to make sure the afterbirth has passed as even a small retained portion can cause problems. Fat ponies are especially prone to founder; make sure their diet is regulated and they get plenty of exercise. Watch water consumption of the horse after strenuous work and do not race on hard roads or do work on hard surfaces for long periods of time..

Anyone who knows me also knows of our dear, old Foxy horse purchased back in 1980 out at the late Cecil Brown’s Morgan Stable. That hellion raced us through many-a-field and forest, showing us that Never-Say-Die Morgan attitude, only to be brought to a standstill by founder one year here at the pasture.

Through careful management with Vet and Blacksmith, Foxy was brought back to near original condition, being able to be ridden once again, though certainly not as his former, wild self. We did the abscess soaks and diet management, the hoof pads and even a hoof re-section, in a constant, diligent watch to keep him workably sound.

Ultimately, his feet did him in; having re-foundered, he was humanely euthanized at the grand old age of 28, and I’m sure he is running like the wind in some field up in Horse Heaven.

Choosing to manage a foundered horse is an owner’s decision; a family pet or an expensive investment can turn out well and be workably sound or simply crater, in complete rotation and euthanasia.

It is the risk many Horseman take, simply by purchasing an animal; horses are very delicate creatures, requiring careful management. I’d have to agree, though, that the joy and therapeutic benefits of horse ownership far out way the risks involved, and I, and many of my colleagues and friends look forward to many enjoyable years ahead with our good buddies.

That Pymatuning sunset sure looks pretty this time of year, especially on horseback.

Pondering these points to the immortal words of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, "Happy Trails to You."

(1) "The Horse Owner’s Vet Book" by E.C. Straiton

(2,3) "A Horse Around the House"by Patricia Jacobson and Marcia Hayes

(4) " The Complete Book of Horse Care" by Tim Hawcroft, B.V.Sc.