Having to put down a horse is one of the most wrenching decisions an owner can face. And losing one to laminitis can be especially difficult—by the time the end comes, a horse has often endured weeks or months of pain with faint hope of recovery.
Laminitis has long been a scourge among horses: difficult to predict, nearly impossible to treat, killing many and often leaving survivors permanently unsound. Even the great Secretariat—a Triple Crown winner who enjoyed the highest standard of care—was euthanatized because of laminitis in 1989 at the age of 19.
“The idea that they could do nothing for the most famous horse in the world at the time is devastating,” says Donald Walsh, DVM, founder of the Animal Health Foundation (AHF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising money for laminitis research.
Today, however, the tide may finally be turning—thanks in part to the AHF. Then a practicing veterinarian, Walsh established the AHF in 1984 because he was frustrated that he could do so little to help patients with laminitis and he was discouraged that little research into the condition was being done. Since then, the AHF has provided more than $1.8 million in research grants to universities in the United States and Australia. And those grants have led directly to great strides in the understanding of laminitis and its causes.
One of the biggest AHF-supported breakthroughs in recent years has been the discovery that the majority of laminitis cases are not caused by systemic inflammation, as had been previously believed, but instead are associated with high levels of insulin in the blood resulting from metabolic disorders. And this discovery, in turn, has led to a number of preventive measures, such as treating metabolic diseases and soaking hay to reduce the sugar content, that can greatly reduce the risks that a susceptible horse might develop laminitis. “We’re so optimistic now that we can prevent the disease,” Walsh says.
But there is more work to be done. To continue supporting the research, Walsh has established a Memorial Wall on the AHF website inscribed with the names of horses lost to laminitis. Anyone who has owned or known such a horse is invited to donate a gift of any amount to place a name on the wall. Secretariat will always be remembered, but Walsh wants to make sure that no other horse who died due to laminitis will ever be forgotten. “Any donation gets a horse on the wall,” Walsh says. “I thought providing a memorial for these people to enroll their horses could start a dialogue between us. I’d like to include every horse that has died from laminitis.”
Currently, the Memorial Wall contains only a list of horses’ names and the names of the people who donated in their honor. But Walsh has plans to expand the site by including pictures as well as a short bio of each horse. His primary goal is to establish a feeling of community among the people most personally affected by laminitis.
“I would like to have some ongoing dialogue and give them updates on our research,” Walsh says. “If we just had small donations for each horse lost to laminitis, we could do so much.”
Donations to the AHF are tax-deductible, and because the Board of Directors covers its own administrative costs, 100 percent of all other donations go directly to laminitis research. Donors of $250 or more receive a special edition print of Secretariat. For more information, go to www.ahf-laminitis.org.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #463, April 2016.