A horse’s hooves are the only weight-bearing structures of their body, which a lot of mass needs to be supported on a relatively small area. Hoof problems can be a big concern for horse owners and one of the more common hoof diseases is laminitis. Laminitis technically means inflammation of the laminae (soft tissue inside the hoof between the coffin bone and the hoof wall), but that is not exactly an accurate description of this disease. Laminitis is actually a condition where the hoof wall tears and separates from the internal tissue causing a great deal of pain and inflammation for the horse. If the disease progresses untreated, the coffin bone inside the horse’s hoof loses support from the internal tissues and the whole bone actually rotates and sinks. Once the coffin bone sinks, the disease is described as founder. Horses with laminitis often stand with their front legs stretched out in front of them to take weight off their front hooves.
Any breed of horse can be affected by laminitis, but it tends to be caused by metabolic issues which are more common in ponies. Laminitis commonly occurs if a horse consumes a large quantity of food that breaks down in to simple sugar (from getting into the grain bins or during their first spring turn-out on lush green grass), their blood sugar can spike. Horses usually graze on hay or grass all so their body is used to their food slowly fermenting in their gut. Horses sensitive to that sudden rush of sugars in the body can experience laminitis. Additional causes include excessive stress on the hooves from hard ground conditions or travel, infection, drug toxicity, retained afterbirth or metabolic diseases such as Cushings.
If your horse experiences signs of laminitis treat it as an emergency and call your vet so they can administer anti-inflammatory medication before the coffin bone moves. Horses predisposed to laminitis should be fed a diet that is high in fiber and low in bran, grain, fresh grass and other foods that are metabolized into simple sugars. Regular farrier visits to support the hooves with special shoes and pads will also help protect their feet. Do not force your horse to work if they are showing signs of lameness from laminitis because that could further damage the laminae.