How to reduce the risk of laminitis in horses

  • Managing horses and ponies prone to or at risk from laminitis should focus on proactive management. Pasture-associated laminitis is the most common condition seen in the UK’s equine population and the advice below will help keep your horse or pony safe this coming spring.

    In general you should…

    1. Act early. Don’t wait until your horse or pony is overweight or had his first episode of laminitis before you consider reducing the risk of laminitis. Rather, if he is susceptible to laminitis, managing it should become part of his daily routine. Once a horse or pony has had the condition they will become more prone to it — and any damage may be impossible to rectify.

    2. Consider the risk. If you have a native pony, cob or a good doer, manage them as if they are already laminitic — this way you will be reducing their overall risk. We don’t fully understand the genetic component of laminitis, but it is highly likely that genetics play a significant role so don’t take any gambles with an at-risk animal.

    3. Aim to keep your horse slim. Being overweight or obese will increase your horse or pony’s risk of laminitis — although the link may not be a direct one as thin ponies can get it too. A slim animal (condition score 5 on the 9-point scale, see p4) is healthier for many reasons, so manage diet and keep exercise levels up — this will help support a healthy metabolism.

    4. Use winter wisely. Ponies are meant to lose weight in the winter, so let them! This will help keep the metabolism healthy and allow him to put a few extra pounds on when the spring grass comes through — without becoming overweight. Don’t over-rug either; does your Welsh cob really need a duvet?

    5. Use a suitable feed. Look for feeds approved by The Laminitis Trust (www.laminitis.org), or feed a suitable low-calorie balancer to balance the diet. Avoid cereal-based feeds as these can in time increase the risk of developing insulin resistance.

    6. Analyse your forage — especially for water soluble carbohydrate (WSC). Aim to choose forage with less than 10% WSC (dry matter).

    7. Keep an eye on your horse’s feet. Look out for foot tenderness, a stretched white line, blood in the white line, laminitic rings and splaying of the feet — all of these could be signs all is not well with your horse’s foot health.

    How to restrict grass intake…

    1. Limit time at pasture. Although be warned it is possible that ponies may adapt their eating behaviour so that they maximise the amount of grass consumed within a given turnout period. Research has shown that ponies can eat 1% of their bodyweight (dry matter) during a three-hour turnout period!

    2. Try strip grazing. This means making sure you don’t give them access to too much grass in one go.

    3. Use of a “pasture free” alternative turnout area – such as sand arenas, woodchip covered areas and so on. But be aware there are potential issues such as increased risk of sand colic, especially if forage is restricted.

    4. Use a grazing muzzle. Recent work has confirmed that the appropriate use of grazing muzzles can reduce the dry matter grass intake in ponies within a three-hour period by around 80% regardless of season. Make sure they are appropriately fitted, not used all the time and that they allow drinking. The length of the grass also needs to be appropriate to allow for eating.

    Managing the pasture itself…

    It is currently thought that the incidence of pasture-associated laminitis could be reduced considerably if horses and ponies at risk only grazed when the levels of starch, sugar and fructans are low.

    Unfortunately this may be difficult to predict as it may vary from season to season; location to location and even within a location during the particular day. Other factors that can have an impact are plant species; field topography and the grazing patterns of individual animals.

    But the following advice is useful:
    1. In very susceptible individuals consider zero grazing, especially at high risk times. Alongside this, provide suitable forage, a balancer or appropriate high-fibre, low-sugar and starch feed ideally approved by The Laminitis Trust.

    2. Turn horses out to pasture when fructan/WSC levels are likely to be at the lowest. In the UK this tends to be from late at night to early morning. Remove the animal from the pasture by mid-morning.

    3. More mature, stemmy grasses may actually contain more fructan, as it is stored in the stem, than younger grasses. So try to maintain young, leafy grass. But remember that when there is a lot of grass available, there may still be a need to restrict grass intake — even if the WSC content per blade of grass is low.

    4. Do not graze on pastures that have not been properly managed by regular grazing or cutting .

    If you found this useful, view the Spillers’ Spring Feeding Guide for more expert advice.

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