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Founder in Horses and Understanding Equine Laminitis

Last updated: May 25, 2024

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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When our veterinarian mentioned the possibility of our horse having foundered, alarm and concern were evident on our faces. Our grandson, noticing our distress, quickly inquired, “What is founder, and why is it so worrisome?”

Founder, in simple terms, is a painful condition where a horse’s hoof becomes so inflamed it’s agonizing for them to bear weight on it. At the root of this ailment often lies laminitis—an inflammation of the lamens, delicate layers of tissue bonding the hoof wall to the underlying coffin bone.

Laminitis can be triggered by several factors, including excessive grain or sugar intake, overexertion, or even dehydration. Left unchecked, founder can have fatal consequences. However, with prompt detection and professional veterinary intervention, many horses can and do fully recover. In this article, we delve into the causes of founder in horses and its potential treatments.

Diagram of a horses hoof,

Understanding Founder

Founder, often heard in whispers among horse owners, is a condition that evokes genuine concern—and for good reason. Simply put, founder is a painful inflammation in a horse’s foot, directly affecting the hoof.

When a horse founders, it means the animal is experiencing intense pain and discomfort, often seen as a reluctance to walk or an altered gait. Imagine the worst foot pain you’ve ever felt, then magnify it. That’s what these animals are enduring.

The Anatomy Involved: Hoof, Lamens, and Coffin Bone

To truly grasp the seriousness of founder, it’s essential to delve a bit into equine anatomy.

The Hoof: The hoof is not just a solid block but a complex structure designed to bear the weight of the horse while providing shock absorption. It’s the outer protective shield, but it’s also susceptible to inflammation, especially when something goes wrong internally.

Lamens: Think of lamens as thin sheets of tissue or connectors. They play a pivotal role by linking the inner structures of the hoof, especially the coffin bone, to the outer hoof wall. When laminitis (inflammation of the lamens) sets in, these delicate layers get compromised, making it painful for the horse to bear weight.

Coffin Bone: Nestled deep inside the hoof, the coffin bone is fundamental to the hoof’s structure. When the lamens get inflamed, they can’t provide proper support, leading the coffin bone to rotate or sink—a primary reason founder is so painful.

Differentiating Founder from Other Equine Ailments

Founder isn’t the only foot ailment a horse might face, but it is distinct. While conditions like hoof abscesses or stone bruises can also cause lameness or discomfort, founder is especially concerning because of its potential to cause permanent damage.

Unlike a simple abscess that might heal with treatment or a bruise that fades with time, founder, if not addressed promptly, can lead to irreversible changes in the hoof’s internal structure. It’s this potential for lasting harm, coupled with the extreme pain it causes, that sets founder apart from many other equine foot ailments.

Understanding founder is the first step in preventing or treating it. With a clear grasp of its anatomy and distinguishing features, you’re better equipped to recognize and respond to this significant equine concern.

The Link between Founder and Laminitis

Laminitis, while often used interchangeably with founder, isn’t precisely the same. To clarify the difference, laminitis is the initial inflammation of the sensitive layers (lamens) within the hoof. These lamens are responsible for securing the coffin bone, a vital bone inside the hoof, to the hoof wall. When these layers become inflamed, they can weaken and deteriorate.

The term “laminitis” can be broken down: “laminae” refers to these layers, and “-itis” denotes inflammation. So, laminitis directly translates to the inflammation of the laminae. Common triggers for this inflammation include overconsumption of carbohydrates (like grain), severe infections, extended periods of bearing weight on one leg due to injury in the other, and other systemic issues.

The Role of Inflammation in Founder

Founder is essentially the aftermath or consequence of untreated or severe laminitis. When the inflammation from laminitis isn’t addressed timely or adequately, it can lead to a shift or rotation in the coffin bone due to the weakening and damage of the lamens.

This shift is incredibly painful and can cause permanent damage to the hoof structure. Inflammation in founder is like a silent enemy. At its core, it weakens the essential bonds holding the horse’s foot together.

As the lamens become more inflamed and start to die, they can’t provide the necessary support to the coffin bone. Consequently, the bone might sink or tilt, pressing against the sole of the foot—a scenario that equates to intense pain for the horse.

In summary, while laminitis is the initial inflammation and disease process, founder is the result of advanced laminitis and its complications. Understanding the close link between these two is crucial for early detection, intervention, and effective treatment.

Recognizing the role of inflammation helps horse owners be vigilant about the signs and seek prompt veterinary care, potentially averting the devastating effects of founder.

Picture of a horse standing still in a pasture which is an indicator of founder.

Causes of Founder and Laminitis

To effectively address and prevent founder and laminitis in horses, understanding the root causes is essential. While multiple factors can lead to these conditions, some are more prevalent and easily identifiable than others.

Overconsumption: Grain, Sugar, and Its Implications

The Perils of Excess Horses are natural grazers, primarily feeding on grasses and hay. However, domestication has introduced them to grain diets, which, if given in excessive amounts, can be detrimental.

Grains and certain grasses are rich in carbohydrates, specifically non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs). An overload of these NSCs can rapidly ferment in the horse’s hindgut, producing acids and toxins.

The Domino Effect These toxins can then enter the bloodstream and cause inflammation of the lamens in the hoof, leading to laminitis. If this inflammatory response isn’t quickly addressed, it can progress to founder.

It’s essential for horse owners to monitor and regulate their horses’ diets, ensuring they aren’t overfed grains or allowed to graze on rich, sugary pastures for extended periods. Note: An overweight horse is much more likely to founder than a fit one.

Physical Stressors: Overexertion and Its Dangers

Pushing Limits Just as athletes can suffer from overtraining, horses, too, can face health issues when overworked. Prolonged physical activity, especially on hard surfaces, can increase the risk of laminitis. The repetitive stress and trauma can compromise the hoof’s internal structures.

The Price of Performance In some cases, performance horses, particularly those in demanding disciplines, are more susceptible to laminitis due to the intense training and competitive schedules. Regular rest, proper footwear, and attentive care are paramount to counteract the wear and tear they endure.

Breed: Some breeds of horses and ponies are more prone to founder than others. A two-year study done in the U.K. showed that some of the native breeds were more likely to founder than other breeds. Genetics can play a role in deciding what the horse will do.

Environmental Factors: Dehydration and Its Effects

Water: The Lifeblood Water is crucial for a horse’s overall health and particularly vital for their digestive systems. A lack of adequate hydration can lead to a multitude of issues, including impaction, colic, and reduced blood flow.

The Connection to the Hoof Reduced blood flow can further stress the lamens in the hoof, increasing the risk of laminitis. Especially during hot seasons or after intense workouts, horses may lose significant amounts of water and electrolytes. Ensuring they have continuous access to clean, fresh water is a simple yet critical step in laminitis prevention.

In a nutshell, while founder and laminitis can stem from various sources, understanding these primary causes helps horse owners make informed decisions about diet, exercise, and overall care. With this knowledge, one can craft a holistic approach to equine well-being, minimizing the risks associated with these painful conditions.

Less Common Causes of Founder

Some grass, when eaten early in the morning, can also lead to laminitis and founder. This is particularly true if the grass is from a new source. If you want to learn more about the types of grass horses eat, you should read Grass For Horses: Why it’s Essential and the Different Types.

If you’re a new horse owner, spend some time reading about equine diets and talking to veterinarians and experienced horsemen. Most should advise you to supplement your horse’s hay or grass if it requires extra energy.

  • Medications

Steroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can, over time, cause laminitis. One would think it would have the opposite effect, but overuse is definitely a cause. Scientists found that horses administered steroids after eating a high carbohydrate diet were much more likely to develop laminitis.

  • Colic surgery

Founder only happens in one to two percent of the surgeries, although it does happen. However, administering low‐molecular‐weight heparin (LMWH) post-colic surgery has proven to be effective in preventing laminitis.

  • Black walnut exposure

If you’ve looked around a black walnut tree, you may have noticed poor soil. That’s because the tree, bark, and leaves contain a toxin. Horses are extraordinarily sensitive to this toxin. If they eat it or it’s part of the shavings in their stalls, they are at risk of developing laminitis.

  • Pregnancy

Both the added weight of the foal and the hormones released during pregnancy can result in laminitis. It may also relate to general biological changes that sometimes cause pregnant horses to be insulin-resistant and thus prone to develop laminitis.

Picture of a two year old horse in training

Identifying Founder in Horses

Recognizing the onset of founder in horses can be the difference between successful intervention and prolonged suffering. It’s akin to catching a spark before it becomes a raging fire. Being vigilant about the signs of founder allows for early treatment, which can drastically improve the horse’s prognosis.

Early Signs and Symptoms

Telltale Signs When a horse starts showing symptoms of founder, the signs might be subtle but are unmistakable to the trained eye. Some of these include:

  • Reluctance to Walk: Often, the first noticeable sign is a horse that hesitates or outright refuses to walk, particularly on hard surfaces.
  • Altered Gait: When they do move, their stride may be shorter, or they may walk as if they’re “tip-toeing”, especially with their front feet.
  • Heat and Pulse: Increased warmth in the hooves and a noticeable strong or “bounding” pulse in the foot can indicate inflammation and restricted blood flow.

Behavioral Changes in the Horse

More Than Just “Off Days” Horses, like humans, have their moods and off days. But behavioral changes stemming from founder are more persistent and pronounced:

  • Restlessness: A horse might continuously shift its weight from one foot to another or frequently lie down and avoid standing.
  • Lameness: Especially after periods of rest or in the morning, the horse may exhibit lameness.
  • Protective Posture: In an attempt to alleviate the pain, horses may adopt a ‘founder stance’ where they lean back on their hind feet to take weight off their painful front feet.

Physical Examinations: What Veterinarians Look For

Beyond the Obvious A thorough vet examination is crucial in confirming founder. While some signs are visible to horse owners, vets use their expertise and tools to dig deeper:

  • Hoof Testing: Using hoof testers, vets will apply pressure to different parts of the hoof to pinpoint areas of pain.
  • Radiographs (X-rays): These can show any rotation or sinking of the coffin bone inside the hoof, providing a clear picture of the severity of the founder.
  • Blood Work: This can reveal underlying causes like metabolic disorders that can predispose a horse to founder.

Identifying founder in horses requires a combination of observation, understanding of behavioral shifts, and professional veterinary assessments. Being proactive in spotting the early signs ensures that interventions can be applied in a timely manner, offering the horse the best chance of recovery.

Below is a YouTube video of a horse with founder.

YouTube video

Treatment Options for Founder in Horses

Addressing founder promptly and effectively is paramount to preventing further pain and damage in affected horses. Comprehensive treatment not only focuses on immediate relief but also on long-term management to ensure the horse’s prolonged well-being.

Immediate Interventions for Relief

Rapid Response As with any medical emergency, swift action can drastically alter the outcome:

  • Anti-inflammatory Medications: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like phenylbutazone can be administered to reduce inflammation and pain.
  • Cold Therapy: Immersing the horse’s feet in cold water or using cold packs can help reduce inflammation and provide immediate relief.
  • Stall Rest: Limiting movement by keeping the horse in a soft, padded stall can prevent further injury and allow the hooves to heal.
  • Supportive Padding: Soft pads or specialized boots can be used to offer support and cushioning to the painful hooves.

Long-term Treatments and Management Strategies

The Road to Recovery Founder isn’t just a one-time event; it necessitates a thoughtful, ongoing approach to care:

  • Dietary Management: Adjusting the horse’s diet to reduce carbohydrate intake, focusing on high-fiber, low-starch feed, and avoiding lush pastures can prevent recurrence.
  • Regular Check-ups: Periodic vet visits can help monitor the horse’s progress and catch any potential setbacks early.
  • Weight Management: Keeping the horse at an optimal weight reduces the strain on the hooves and lowers the risk of metabolic disorders that can contribute to founder.
  • Exercise: Once recovered, a structured, gradual exercise regimen can help strengthen the hooves and enhance circulation.

The Role of Specialized Hoof Care and Farrier Services

Expertise Matters A skilled farrier is a cornerstone in the management and recovery of a foundered horse:

  • Corrective Shoeing: Custom-made shoes can help redistribute weight, relieve pressure, and promote healing. Farriers can craft shoes that cater to the specific needs of a foundered hoof.
  • Regular Trimming: Keeping the hooves properly trimmed prevents uneven weight distribution and further complications.
  • Monitoring Hoof Growth: A knowledgeable farrier can track the hoof’s growth and health, making adjustments in care as needed.

In essence, treating founder in horses requires a multifaceted approach. It’s not just about alleviating immediate pain but ensuring that the horse can continue to lead a comfortable, active life. With the right combination of veterinary care, farrier expertise, and attentive management, many horses can recover from founder and thrive.

Picture of a horses lower legs.

Prognosis and Recovery for Founder in Horses

Founder in horses is a daunting ailment, but with swift action and diligent care, many horses bounce back. However, the severity and prognosis vary based on the timeliness of diagnosis and the quality of treatment.

The Likelihood of Full Recovery with Early Diagnosis

A Race Against Time Early detection is the linchpin for a positive prognosis in founder cases:

  • Quick Action, Better Results: Horses diagnosed and treated in the initial stages of founder have a much higher likelihood of achieving a complete recovery. Their hooves can heal without any lasting damage, allowing them to return to their regular activities.
  • Reduced Treatment Duration: Early intervention also often means a shorter treatment time, resulting in lower stress and cost for the owner.

Potential Complications if Left Untreated

The Risks of Delay Ignoring or missing the early signs of founder can have dire consequences:

  • Permanent Hoof Damage: Chronic laminitis can lead to irreversible changes in the hoof structure, including the rotation or sinking of the coffin bone.
  • Systemic Issues: The pain and stress from untreated founder can affect the horse’s overall health, potentially leading to weight loss, muscle wasting, or secondary infections.
  • Decreased Quality of Life: Severe cases can render a horse perpetually lame, diminishing its quality of life and potentially leading to the heartbreaking decision of euthanasia.

While founder is undeniably challenging, it’s far from a death sentence for horses. With prompt diagnosis, comprehensive treatment, and unwavering commitment, many horses overcome this hurdle, proving that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Prevention Strategies for Founder in Horses

Preventing founder is far preferable to treating it. The condition, though treatable, can cause substantial pain and stress for the horse and require significant effort and resources from the owner. As the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” By understanding and implementing key preventive strategies, horse owners can significantly reduce the risk of their equine friends developing founder.

Diet Control and the Importance of Balanced Nutrition

Feed Wisely, Thrive Wholeheartedly The diet plays a pivotal role in maintaining a horse’s health and preventing various ailments, including founder:

  • Limit Sugars and Starches: High levels of non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), such as sugars and starches, can trigger laminitis. Avoiding grains and rich, lush pastures, especially during their peak growth periods, can help.
  • Balanced Nutrients: Ensure the horse’s diet is rich in essential vitamins and minerals. This balance aids in maintaining strong hooves and overall health.
  • Regulate Feed Intake: Overeating, especially on grain, can quickly lead to obesity, a key risk factor for founder. Implementing controlled feeding practices and using slow-feed hay nets can prevent overconsumption.
  • Forage First: Prioritize high-quality hay or pasture as the primary food source. This aligns with the horse’s natural grazing behavior and digestive design.

Regular Exercise and Monitoring Workload

Keep Them Moving, Keep Them Sound A sedentary lifestyle isn’t suitable for horses. Regular activity is paramount:

  • Consistent Exercise: Routine movement promotes healthy circulation in the hooves and helps maintain an optimal weight, reducing the risk of founder.
  • Avoid Overexertion: While exercise is beneficial, pushing a horse too hard, especially on hard surfaces, can be detrimental. It’s vital to balance work and rest periods.
  • Adapt to Conditions: On particularly hot or humid days, reduce the intensity and duration of workouts to prevent overheating and stress.

Hydration and Its Critical Role in Prevention

Water: The Elixir of Life Adequate hydration is a cornerstone of equine health:

  • Constant Access: Horses should always have access to clean, fresh water. Dehydration can lead to reduced blood flow to the hooves, setting the stage for laminitis.
  • Monitor Intake: In hotter climates or after intense workouts, horses will need more water. Be observant of their water intake and replenish as needed.
  • Electrolyte Balance: In some situations, like prolonged sweating, horses might benefit from electrolyte supplementation to maintain the right balance, further supporting hydration.

The prevention of founder in horses revolves around holistic care—nutrition, exercise, and hydration are intertwined pillars that uphold a horse’s health. By being proactive and attentive to these elements, horse owners can provide their equine companions with a life that’s not only free from founder but also abundantly fulfilling.

Below is a YouTube video with tips on how to prevent laminitis.

Conclusion: Guarding the Well-being of Our Equine Companions

The journey through understanding founder in horses underscores a paramount truth: the significance of early detection and the immeasurable value of timely intervention. Founder, with its potential to deeply affect a horse’s quality of life, becomes significantly more manageable when addressed in its nascent stages.

Vigilance is Paramount Recognizing the subtle signs, from shifts in behavior to minute physical changes, can be the difference between a transient ailment and a prolonged struggle. It’s not just about reacting swiftly; it’s about preempting the condition’s escalation. Early detection paves the way for more effective treatments, reduces the risk of complications, and optimizes the chances of a full recovery.

Knowledge: The Steed of Empowerment But in the vast landscape of equine care, what truly empowers horse owners is knowledge. Founder, despite its intimidating presence, loses some of its menace when approached with informed strategies, both for prevention and treatment.

Every piece of information, every shared experience, every tool or resource equips owners to make decisions that prioritize their horse’s health and well-being. In essence, our bond with these magnificent animals is enriched not just by the joyous gallops and serene trots but by the silent commitment to their welfare.

By arming ourselves with knowledge and fostering a vigilant approach, we ensure that our equine companions not only lead lives free from the shadows of ailments like founder but also thrive in the full light of health and happiness.

FAQs

Can grass cause a horse to founder?

Yes, grass can cause a horse to founder through excess sugar in the diet. When horses graze on pasture, they eat mostly carbohydrates (sugars) and very little protein. This type of diet is high in nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC) and can result in “grass founder.”

What’s the difference between laminitis and founder?

Laminitis is an inflammation of the sensitive laminae within the hoof. Founder is a rotational deformity (typically of the hindlimbs) in horses that are typically caused by laminitis. The terms are often used interchangeably.

Resources