Late summer and early fall can be an exciting time for we humans who enjoy changing seasons, new (or old favorite) outfits and the quintessential fall flavors.
But for our horses who are still out to pasture, this time of year can be a serious risk factor for laminitis.
What is it, how can we prevent it, and why is fall (a time most people don’t associate with this stressor), on our radar?
What is laminitis?
The bond is made up of two parts. One is a layer similar to our fingernail that is not alive and grows from the coronary band. That layer is attached to the actual laminae, which is more comparable to our nail beds.
A painful inflammatory condition of the laminae tissues that bond the wall and the pedal bone of a horses or donkey’s foot, laminitis is caused by tissue weakening, which can often be traced back to dietary factors.
It is not the same as the commonly known Founders disease, though laminitis can lead to Founders if left untreated. Founders occurs when the bond (called the laminar bond) truly fails, and the foot sinks.
Why does weather matter?
Our animals graze outdoors, where weather seriously affects vegetation. Freezing temps and dry conditions can negatively contribute to the quality of a horse’s diet. How?
Sugar content in dead grass or grass that has frozen and thawed can actually be tremendously high. (Check out this study from Rocky Mountain Research and Consulting for the exact numbers.) The plant is stressed, and the sugars it would normally use to grow start accumulating.
In warm seasons, the sugar in the grass is more likely to be starch, while in cold temperatures, the sugar is more likely fructan.
There is some disagreement as to whether or not higher consumption of fructan content can lead to laminitis, given that its role in changes in insulin resistance isn’t fully determined. But the relationship between laminitis and insulin resistance is established enough that many equine experts feel comfortable making the connection.
What can we do?
While there are no guaranteed techniques, there are some steps we can take to prevent laminitis. If horses need to be out to pasture at times when there is drought or colder temps (under 40 degrees Fahrenheit), consider using a grazing muzzle to limit grass intake.
The best grazing times (when sugar content is lower) are between 3am and 10 am, cloudy days, and nights when temps are above 40. Try to avoid allowing horses to graze on overgrazed pastures, too. Another good idea is to make slow, small transitions in changing a horse’s diet, rather than turning him out to a beautiful, lush pasture immediately after time spent in a dryer, less healthy one.
Of course, a visit to the equine vet (or a house call) is always in order when you suspect laminitis. Look for signs like difficulty in walking, any sort of lameness, shifting weight, hooves warm to the touch, or any other changes. Don’t wait to treat laminitis – at the very least, a vet can help with pain relief.
Have you known any horses who have experienced laminitis or Founders? What actions were you able to take that helped? Share your story on our Facebook page.