Prevent Founder in Your Horse this Spring: Tips for a Healthy Pasture Turnout

As spring approaches, many horse owners will be eager to turn their horses out to pasture for the first time in months. While pasture turnout can be a great way for horses to get exercise and enjoy the outdoors, it also carries the risk of founder. Founder is a painful and potentially deadly condition in which the horses hooves become inflamed, and can be caused by overconsumption of grass or other rich foods.

Fortunately, there are a number of steps horse owners can take to help prevent founder in their horses during spring pasture turnout. First, its important to gradually introduce the horse to pasture turnout, allowing them to become accustomed to the new environment and food sources. This can be done by gradually increasing the amount of time the horse spends in the pasture, and by introducing them to new grasses and plants slowly. This can help to prevent the horse from overconsuming any one type of food and becoming ill.

In addition, it is important to monitor the horses diet and weight, as well as the condition of their hooves. If a horse is overweight or their hooves are in poor condition, they may be more prone to founder. If this is the case, the horse should be given extra time to adjust to the new pasture, and their diet should be closely monitored.

Finally, it is important to provide the horse with plenty of clean water and forage in addition to the grass in the pasture. This will help to ensure the horse is getting the nutrition they need, and will help to prevent them from overeating.

By taking these steps, horse owners can help to ensure their horse enjoys a safe and healthy spring pasture turnout. With the right care and preparation, horses can enjoy the benefits of pasture turnout without the risk of founder.

Pasture Turn Out Strategies to Limit NSC Intake

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Research has shown that pasture-induced laminitis occurs at times of rapid grass growth. The accumulation of certain carbohydrates including fructans, starches, and sugars (Non-Structural Carbohydrates, NSC) in pasture forage during the spring, early summer and fall, particularly after rainfall precipitate this laminitis. Therefore we must carefully manage pasture turnout and forage intake in horses and ponies that are at risk for developing laminitis or are currently affected.

We also understand that horses suffering from and/or Cushings (Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction, PPID), as well as horses and ponies with the ‘‘easy keeper’’ phenotype, that are often overweight or obese and may be persistently hyperinsulinemic, should also be managed carefully with regard to their carbohydrate intake.

Decisions regarding whether an effected animal can be allowed access to pasture, and to what extent, must be made on a case – by-case basis; however, in general:

• The affected horse or pony should be held off pasture until there has been complete resolution of the acute laminitis episode and, when indicated, diagnostic testing for IR and PPID. If there is no evidence of IR or PPID, a gradual reintroduction to pasture may be considered. Start with 1 to 2 hours of grazing once or twice per day or with turnout for longer periods if the horse is fitted with a grazing muzzle. More caution may be required when pasture is green and growing rapidly (eg, in spring).

• Obese insulin resistant horses should be held off pasture for a longer period (2–3 months), allowing time for implementation of management changes (dietary restriction, increased physical activity) that result in improved insulin sensitivity. Even then, it is advisable to severely restrict or avoid any grazing during periods in which the pasture forage NSC content is likely to be high (eg, spring and early summer, after summer and fall rains that cause the grass to turn green, pastures that have been frosted or drought stressed).

• Some insulin resistant horses and ponies with history of repeated episodes of laminitis require permanent housing in a dry lot because they seem to be susceptible to further episodes of laminitis in the face of even small variations in pasture availability and nutrient content.

• Animals predisposed to laminitis should be denied access to grass pastures, particularly during the spring.

• At other times of the year, limit the amount of turnout time each day (eg, 1–3 hours) and turn animals out late at night (after 8:00pm) or early in the morning, removing them from pasture by mid-morning at the latest (before 10:00am, because NSC levels are likely to be at their lowest late at night through early morning).

• Alternatively, limit the size of the available pasture by use of temporary fencing to create small paddocks or use a grazing muzzle.

• Avoid pastures that have not been properly managed by regular grazing or cutting, because mature stemmy grasses may contain more fructan (it is stored in the stem).

• Do not turn horses out onto pasture that has been exposed to low temperatures in conjunction with bright sunlight, such as occurs in the fall after a flush of growth or on bright, cool winter days, because cold temperatures reduce grass growth, resulting in the accumulation of fructan.

• Do not allow animals to graze on recently cut stubble, because fructan is stored predominantly in the stem.

Animals denied access to pasture for most or all of the day, require provision of alternative feed stuffs. Horses at maintenance require approximately 2.0% of their body weight as forage, or forage plus forage supplement to meet daily nutrient requirements.

Grains and fortified feeds should be selected carefully for low NSC content, and the feeding of other ‘‘treats,’’ such as carrots and apples, should be discouraged. Forage (as hay or hay substitute, such as or cubes) should be the primary, if not sole energy providing component of the ration. Alfalfa hay or other legumes, such as clover, on average, have lower NSC content when compared with grass hay but have considerably higher calorie/energy content. Generalities regarding carbohydrate value of forages should in most cases, however, be avoided. Ideally, hay should be analyzed for Water Soluble Carbohydrates (WSC), Ethanol Soluble Carbohydrates (ESC) and starch, and should be reviewed before selection. The addition of WSC and starch is the closest to what we call NSC and for the at-risk or laminitic horse, this value should be less than 10% in a hay analysis. Caution should be taken when feeding significant amounts of poorly digestible hay and forages; anecdotally, this practice increases the risk for impaction colic in some animals.

The basis of any equine diet is forage, and success is dependent upon understanding exactly what nutrients that forage provides. Poulin Grain offers complimentary forage testing, interpretation of the analysis, and our skilled feed specialists utilize results to formulate a balanced diet based on your horse’s individual needs.

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Laminitis: When Good Grass Goes Bad

Spring is in the air, and the grass is green and growing fast. Is there anything more idyllic than watching your horse graze belly deep in a lush, green pasture? Except that she probably shouldn’t.

Horses today, in general, don’t work as hard as they did, once upon a time.

They’ve also developed a lot of the same problems as the typical American. They can develop a condition very similar to Type II diabetes. It’s called , or , and it leaves tissues less sensitive to insulin, which in turn causes the pancreas to produce more of this vital hormone. One dangerous disease that often results from EMS is laminitis, also known as founder. Laminitis is the modern name for an old disease. The word refers to the weakened structures in a horse’s foot, the lamina, that result in this crippling form of lameness.

Just to be clear, the word isn’t “lamentitis,” though that’s an appropriate response to the condition (and a killer name for a new book of the Old Testament!). And it’s not “flounder” — that’s a fish.

Horses can founder for a variety of reasons: endotoxicity, Cushing’s disease, and concussive injury to the feet, are but a few. But grass founder is by far the leading cause.

You can manage the situation with several strategies. One would be to put the horse or pony on a dirt (dry) lot until the grass settles out and starts to turn brown. Bummer for everyone. The grass goes to waste and the horse stands around in a small lot, drooling.

You can founder a horse by putting them on an insulin drip for 48 hours, or simply by turning them out onto the equine version of a Snicker’s bar — a green spring pasture. The high sugar content of the grass signals the body to produce even more insulin.

Take a look around the dry lot. Is there any way the horse can contort himself to gain access to grass on the other side of the fence? Remember, dry lot means grass, short grass. This time of year grass is growing quickly everywhere, and you’d be surprised how much the horse is actually eating. Besides, stressed grass like that often contains higher sugar levels.

Exercise is the single best way to treat EMS. (Do I sound like your own physician?) So, locking Flicka up in a small pen is at odds with combatting the problem.

A second strategy is to limit the time the horses are in the pasture, preferably favoring the morning when the sugar content of the grass is lowest. However…horses are smarter than they pretend to be: if they know they’ll get only an hour to eat they’ll gorge as quickly as they can. (Many people adopt this strategy in all-you-can-eat buffets!)

The solution I like is a . This allows the horse to be out walking around all day with her pals, and drastically reduces the amount she can eat. The downside to this approach is that some horses are escape artists, like Houdini, and will slip the muzzle off. Or they’ll wear out the muzzle’s bottom, so it’s no longer an impediment to scarfing large quantities of sugary grass.

So, that’s spring, its rewards and risks. The other time of year when I drive around the countryside treating horses for laminitis is in the fall, when the rains start up again. Once again, the grass turns brilliant green and starts producing sugars.

So, despite your best efforts, your horse has foundered. To respond, you first confine him to a stall where there isn’t even a ghost of a trace of grass. For the foreseeable future, he’ll be eating plain grass hay and not much else. No alfalfa, no grain, no orchard grass, no apples — you get the picture. Bed the stall deeply, this will cushion his feet and perhaps encourage him to lie down. Next, call the vet and let your farrier know what has happened. You won’t need the farrier immediately, but soon.

The objects of the game for treating founder are to stop inflammation in the foot and to establish support. However, nothing will stop the process if the cause (too much sweet grass) isn’t removed. (This is one reason treating foundered Cushing’s horses is such a challenge, but that’s a story for a future post.)

Mechanically, we’ll trim back any long toes to reduce pressure. Next, we’ll pack the foot with styrofoam or another packing agent to take the stress off the hoof wall. Just doing this makes some horses noticeably more comfortable.

Next, we dig into the pharmaceuticals. Number one out of the box is Bute (phenylbutazone). It’s a potent anti-inflammatory ( ) and will help make the horse more comfortable. (For those of you nervous about Bute, we’ll use Equiiox (firocoxib). I’ll also use DMSO, administered by a tube, run up the nose and into the stomach. It’s another anti-inflammatory, but it’s not an NSAID, so we won’t create a toxicity problem. Besides, I like making your barn stink. (Just kidding!)

Icing the feet is another good move. In the old days, they’d stand the foundered horse in the creek. Icing is safe and cheap, but it can be a trial in patience. Today, you can stand the horse in a tub of ice water for at least a half hour at a time, repeating as often as you’re able. devoted to just the topic of icing your horse’s feet.

You can’t do this too much. In fact, it would be ideal if you could stand your horse in ice water 24 hours a day, letting him out only to sleep. Of course, you’d get frostbite, but the circulation in his feet isn’t like yours. Wild horses, for example, can stand all day in snow or freezing mud.

If your horse appears to be struggling with EMS, we may add thyroid supplementation to the mix. This isn’t because your horse is hypothyroid. (There are some simply riveting debates in the scientific literature as to whether horses can even BE hypothyroid.) It’s because the thyroid hormones will make the tissues more sensitive to insulin, and will consequently lower his insulin production levels. We’ll eventually wean your horse off of this supplement.

When the farrier comes out — when your horse becomes comfortable enough to stand with a leg up — she can trim the foot and perhaps even put on therapeutic shoes. She should conserve the heel and chop off the toes. This reduces the tension on the deep digital flexor tendon. It’s this tendon that attaches to the bottom of the coffin bone and pulls it backward, creating rotation. By lifting the heel, you reduce that tension. The foundered foot needs a lot of help and can take months to resolve, so you should schedule appointments with your farrier for every four weeks.

We can take radiographs of the feet to assess how much rotation has occurred. The degree of rotation will give you an idea of how much damage has been done. Just a little, you still have an athlete. Over 15 degrees, and we’re looking to salvage the horse as yard-art.

And oh yeah: founder also predisposes horses to other laminitic events: flat feet, bruises, and abscesses. It’s a crippling disease — so watch the green grass!

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How to Help a Horse Recover from Founder

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Laminitis or “founder” is a painful, debilitating, inflammatory condition of the hoof. The foot bone is suspended inside the hoof by sheet-like tissue called lamina, and during founder, this tissue stretches. After it stretches, the foot bone is no longer suspended and droops to the ground, pressing against the sole of the foot. In severe cases, the horse’s weight may punch the foot bone through the sole of the hoof, which is extremely serious. To help your horse recover from founder, first use medical treatment and then manage the causes.

Founder, or laminitis, is a painful condition that affects the hoof of a horse. While only time can fully heal founder, you can help a horse recover by relieving their pain, reducing inflammation, and allowing them to exercise safely. To relieve their pain symptoms, you can treat your horse with equine NSAIDs. To reduce inflammation, remove your horse’s shoes and attach a special foam pad to its hoof designed to cushion the sole of a horse with founder. It’s also important that your horse gets exercise to promote blood circulation, which will remove toxins and help them recover. Turn your horse out onto a soft pasture so it can run around at their own pace. If you don’t have pasture land available, take them out for a gentle walk on pavement with its foam pads on.

Spring Grass Can Cause Founder

When pastures are covered with a foot of snow, the temperature dips to minus 30, and you’re packing feed to horses, it is hard to worry about the lush green spring pastures. However, now is the time to plan for your horses’ return to those pastures without risking a bout of spring founder.

Founder (laminitis) is always a concern when horses go from a hay-based feed to early pasture. Spring grass contains high levels of carbohydrates, especially a sugar called fructan. Consumption of large amounts of fructan is similar to grain overload and can cause spring founder.

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The early grass is much higher in moisture content (75-85 percent). As well protein (greater than 20 percent), energy, vitamins, and minerals, are also higher than other times of the year. Energy and protein content of foliage can be as much as 50 percent higher in early vegetative growth, compared to late summer growth.

Horses fed on pasture year round usually adjust to new grass as it grows. Hay still provides the necessary nutrition but they graze the grass as it grows and adjust to it gradually. Most management problems occur when horses have been confined, fed a hay-grain ration through the winter, and then abruptly are turned out on spring pasture.

A “sawhorse stance” with the front feet stretched out in front to ease pressure on the toes and the hind feed “camped out” or positioned further back than normal so they bear more weight.

Experts have suggested numerous ways of minimizing the risk of founder when horses go on to early grass, although I couldn’t help but make comments based on our own practical experience.

1. Feed hay immediately before they are turned out on pasture during the adjustment period. They are less likely to overeat when if their stomachs are full

(Worth a try but I don’t have much faith in this. I wouldn’t count on horses not eating lots of grass even if they have just eaten hay. Would you be less likely to eat pie if you had just eaten potatoes?).

2. Restrict grazing time. Horses can be allowed to graze only about 30 minutes once or twice a day the first day and, on subsequent days grazing time is increased by five or ten minutes per day until they are grazing four to six hours a day.

(We found that activities such as going to work every day makes it difficult to follow such precise timing.)

3. The easiest method of avoiding grass founder may be to have horses on pasture before the grass begins to grow. They will move around and find the first green shoots and adapt naturally to the high carbohydrate diet.

(We kept our horses on the pasture all year and fed hay until there was sufficient grass.)

If a bale of straw or low quality hay is left on pasture, most horses will eat some of it as they adjust to the grass.

And note to this lush grass condition isn’t limited to the spring. Increased autumn rainfall can lead to rapid plant growth and lush pasture with the nutritional value similar to that of spring pasture, and the health concerns of obesity and laminitis are again a major concern.

Many horses that develop laminitis recover and go on to lead long, useful lives. Unfortunately others suffer such severe, irreparable damage they are often for humane reasons euthanized.

Georgina Campbell is a freelance writer and a long time horse enthusiast living at Lamont, Alberta