You don’t need to be told that spring is laminitis season. No doubt you’re well aware of the fact that new grass at this time of year can trigger the devastating hoof condition, particularly in horses with insulin0 resistance, pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, also called Cushing’s syndrome) and other hormonal disorders or with a prior history of laminitis.
The question is, what can you do about this risk? There are no guarantees, of course, but a few simple measures can go a long way toward protecting horses from laminitis. So going into this high-risk season, take stock of your horse’s situation and consider adding the following laminitis prevention tools to your regimen.
• A weight tape. Most horses who are sus- ceptible to laminitis are easy keepers, meaning they come out of winter in good flesh or overweight. And any additional pounds a horse carries can increase his laminitis risk.
A tape may not tell you your horse’s exact weight, but repeated use will enable you to detect any gains that increase laminitis risk before you may notice them through simple observation. Check your horse’s weight when it’s time for spring vaccinations, and ask your veterinarian to estimate his body condition score (BCS)—for most horses, a BCS of 7 or higher is cause for concern. Continue to use your weight tape periodically throughout the year.
• A grazing muzzle. One quandary many of us face in spring is balancing the physical and mental benefits of turnout with the need to control a horse’s intake of lush grass. A grazing muzzle offers a good solution.
Many styles of muzzles are available, and it may take some trial-and-error to determine which model fits a horse best, so start your search well before spring, if possible. Once you select a muzzle that suits your horse’s needs, consider purchasing a second one so you’ll have a spare on hand in case the first is lost or broken. Turning a horse out for even a single day without a muzzle can be dangerous.
Finally, make sure your horse’s muzzle is adjusted correctly—snug enough to stay in place, but not so tight that it irritates his skin—and then be vigilant about using it. Yes, a horse in a muzzle may look pitiful, but you’re protecting him from something far worse. If a muzzle isn’t feasible or reliable for an at-risk horse, consider establishing a dry lot—a paddock or pasture that has no grass—on your property.
• A low-carb feed. It’s not just grass that can trigger a laminitic episode in at-risk horses. Feeds high in nonstructural carbohydrates (NSCs), like sugar and starch, can do the same. Fortunately, an array of feeds formulated for horses who are sensitive to NSCs are now on the market. Options range from low- energy mixes for easy keepers to a high-calorie feeds that can safely fuel the activities of at-risk athletes. Almost every major feed company offers at least one such feed.
Talk to your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist about the best option for your horse, then make the switch gradually over the course of a week or two. You may be eager to move your horse to a low-carb feed, but don’t hurry the process. Even though the new feed may be safer, too hasty a transition can disrupt the balance of bacteria in his hindgut, leading to colic0 or systemic inflammation that triggers laminitis.
• A net and tub for soaking hay. Grass hays can contain enough sugar to bring on laminitis in a sensitive horse. The only way to be certain of the sugar content of hay is to send off a sample for testing, and you’ll need to repeat the testing with each new batch or cutting you plan on feeding. There’s another option, though. Research has shown that soaking hay in water can leech out the sugars. The current soaking time recommendations are 30 minutes when using warm water and 60 minutes for cool or cold water.
One easy way to soak hay entails placing flakes in a hay net, which is then submerged in a large bucket full of water. Placing a brick or cinder block on top of the net can help keep the hay below the water line. At the end of the soaking period, lifting the hay net out of the water can be difficult and messy, so you may want to rig up a simple pulley system to keep yourself dry.
An alternative technique is to place loose hay in a plastic laundry basket, which is then submerged in another, larger container filled with water. Just remember that if you soak hay for longer periods than recommended it may lose nutrients, so keep an eye on the clock. Also, don’t let horses drink the leftover soaking water. If you don’t want to waste it, use it to water plants instead.
This article was originally published in EQUUS 487, April 2018