Management and Feeding For A Horse Suffering With Laminitis

Spring grass not only tends to have a lush, rich appearance, but is highly appetizing to most horses. However, experienced, well-read horse people are all too aware of the problems that the high starch content present in many spring grasses can cause. Laminitis, especially prevalent in the spring but quickly becoming a problem, year-round, is a condition which causes chronic foot problems, lameness and even anatomical changes in the horse. Should your horse or pony be diagnosed with laminitis, you are probably looking at a fairly long-term recovery period. Careful management of your pony or horse’s health will need to be ongoing, normally for the rest of his life. As an

Pony with laminitis
With careful dietary management, a pony with laminitis, like Spotty, can live a full and happy life

owner, this can be confusing. It may be difficult to know what to alter and how to make the changes. Hence, the need to understand the current school of thought regarding recommended diet management methods for horses with laminitis.

Are You Monitoring Your Horse or Pony’s Weight?

One of the main aims of the management program for a laminitic is to ensure that any weight loss is gradual and once the ideal weight is achieved, that it is carefully maintained. The most accurate way to weigh a horse is to use livestock scales, however most owners do not have access to this tool and as such, need to calculate their animal’s weight based on certain measurements.

A weight tape allows the owner to make an estimate based on an equation comprised of some of the horse’s specific measurements. The easiest way to carry out this method is to measure the horse’s body length from the point of the shoulder to the point of the buttock. You should then measure heart girth around the midsection, behind the elbow, and beyond the highest part of the withers. Using the following equation, you can estimate his weight.

Weight (in pounds) = [(heart girth in inches) x (heart girth in inches) x (body length in inches)] / 330.

In conjunction with an estimated weight, it is recommended to assess the horse’s body condition scores (BCS) which will provide an indication of whether the horse has too much body fat.

It is recommended that these measurements are repeated every two weeks at the same time of day and prior to feeding.

Is Your Horse Being Fed Correctly?

Overfeeding is one of the biggest culprits in equine laminitis. Laminitics, or horses prone to the condition, do not usually require substantial concentrated feed on top of hay, common sense tells us that extra calories are not necessary for an overweight horse. The basis of the diet of a laminitic should be based on around 1.5% - 2% of the horse’s bodyweight in high quality hay, soaked to remove the excess sugar (link to soaking art). If you wish to add a supplement to ensure supply of complete vitamins and minerals, particularly if the horse is in full work or competing, consider any number of specialty horse supplements, those designed to be lower in calories and sugars. Should you wish to add grain for extra energy, be sure to consult very carefully with a veterinarian being doing so.

Tips for feeding the laminitic

In addition to monitoring the horse or pony’s weight and selecting the right feeds, it’s critical that you feed the right amounts of each feed type. Adherence to the right maintenance plan will help your horse lose weight and potentially avoid further laminitic episodes. Feeding tips for laminitics include:

  • Weigh feed correctly – If you are feeding a balancer or supplement, don’t rely on “scoops” or a “handful”, this is a sure fire way to overfeed your pony! Use weight scales for concentrates. A digital fish scale is very useful for weighing hay.
  • Remember that if you are feeding a complete food and you are providing a ration which is under the minimum recommendation on pack for your horse’s weight (for example, a 13hh pony needs 250g per day, but you feed 125g) you may not be meeting the complete nutritional requirements of the horse. In this instance, you may need to add a hoof supplement such as Heiro Horse Supplements for Foot Pain or SmartHoof® Pellets which can add the nutrients the horse needs, without the calories.
  • Although the recommended amount of forage for a horse or pony is up to 2% per day, many laminitics need to lose weight and as such should be offered around 1.2 -1.5% bodyweight hay and grass per day (no less than 1% bodyweight in hay)
  • If your horse eats his daily ration too quickly, think about investing in a NibbleNet or placing one haynet inside another to slow him down.
  • If your horse is allowed out to pasture, ensure you invest in a grazing muzzle, this will allow him to spend more time outside but keep him from gobbling down too much grass, too quickly. Remember to check regularly that it does not rub and that the grass is not so short that the horse cannot get hold of any. For a grazing muzzle to work, the grass must be long enough to get through the muzzle.

Diet is imperative when it comes to helping a laminitic horse avoid long term discomfort and recurrent issues. The best idea is to formulate a strict feeding regimen, in conjunction with your veterinarian and to stick to it, monitoring the situation closely with your veterinarian’s assistance.

If you're unsure about what type of feed would suit your horse best, or if you have questions about feeding a laminitic, contact your veterinarian or equine nutritionist for advice.

*Image courtesy of A.Daff