Reducing laminitis risks for senior horses

You can take several steps to minimize the risk of laminitis for your aging horse.

Question:My 18-year-old Arabian gelding is going to be retired soon after 13 years in the showring. He will be kept in condition by longe lining and trail riding and will be turned out in pasture an hour or two a day with a 25-year-old Shetland pony for company. He has had a hay belly for the last few years, but when we cut back his grain to get the gut off of him, he loses weight on his neck and hips. He is otherwise in good condition. I am concerned about the risk of laminitis in the spring. What can I do to reduce this risk?

A paint horse grazing in a field.
Turnout time good for a horse’s physical and mental well being, but risk of laminitis need to be mitigated as that increases.

Answer: It doesn’t sound like your horse is in need of any special management for the token turnout you are planning in his retirement. A flush of growth in the pasture after a dormant period might give him one or two loose bowel movements, but these are not serious health problems.

Click here to learn the keys to preventing laminitis. 

If you were to consider more turnout time (which I recommend for the sake of your horse’s mental and physical well-being), you’ll want to become familiar with the many factors that influence laminitis risk.

  • Genetics. Certain horses are more likely to be sensitive to the effects of rich pasture. These include some breeds, such as Quarter Horses and Morgans, and individuals who are obese, cresty or lethargic. It’s wise to strictly ration turnout on lush pasture for these horses and to monitor them carefully for foot soreness that might signal the development of laminitis. As a breed, Arabians are not normally at risk, but if your horse has a thicker body type and carries extra weight, you’ll want to be cautious with him.
  • Climate. The more periods of dormancy followed by a “flush” of growth that a pasture undergoes, the greater and more frequent the hazard of laminitis for the horses who graze it. Monitor the weather and growing conditions in your pasture and adjust turnout time as necessary. Remember, as well, that intermittently irrigated pastures can have the same dormancy/growth cycles and thus carry the same risks.
  • Agronomy. The richer the plants in the pasture and the more extensively it is cultivated, the greater the risk of founder. You can help offset very lush pasture by providing continuous access to clean but nutritionally negligible hay, such as an orchard grass mix or timothy. If such hay is always available, horses tend to nibble enough of it to provide fibrous gut fill that offsets the overly rich pasture. Offering such hay won’t necessarily prevent laminitis but it will reduce the risk.
  • Stocking rate. The greater the number of horses on a given acreage, the lower the risk of overeating that can precipitate laminitis. If you have only two horses on a large pasture, you may want to divide the area into small sections and limit them to one until they graze it down. Then move them to another section and repeat the process.
  • Schedule. Widely varying turnout times and duration will stress the intestinal system and increase the risk of laminitis. Try to stick to a regular routine and make any changes gradually; increase turnout time by only 20 minutes each day.

Finally, I feel compelled to comment on your horse’s “hay belly.” There is a dangerous prejudice in many show disciplines against the natural expanse of the healthy horse’s abdomen. Diets of excess grain and scant hay, a combination that can lead to significant health risks, are often seen as the solutions to this imagined “problem.” Please allow your horse to look like a horse–if he isn’t carrying excess fat on his neck, rump, withers or around his tail head, let him develop a healthy “gut” derived from quality pasture and hay.

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