Laminitis is a serious and extremely painful condition that can affect all equines. It is an inflammation of the soft tissue structures that connect the hoof wall to the coffin bone (pedal bone). An affected horse will find it painful to stand and walk, and the inflammation can lead to the coffin bone rotating, damaging the hoof permanently.

What causes laminitis?

There are several factors that can cause laminitis and it is now known that it is a symptom of illness elsewhere in the body; either severe system-wide inflammatory disease or a metabolic condition. It is classed as either overload, inflammatory or metabolic laminitis and it is important to know which type your horse has or is at risk of developing so you can take steps to treat it effectively or take steps to avoid the condition developing.

Overload laminitis is not that common and is caused by a weight overload in a limb. This might be because the horse has an injury in one limb causing the horse to rely on the opposite limb and put too much weight on it, or it can be caused by repeated and severe concussion to the hoof from trotting on hard surfaces repeatedly and for long periods, for example.   

Metabolic laminitis is caused by Cushing’s disease (pituitary dysfunction) or EMS (Equine Metabolic Syndrome). Both of these conditions mean the horse can’t control their digestion of carbohydrates and so produce excessive levels of insulin.

Inflammatory laminitis can be caused by eating too much starch-rich grain. If your horse eats too much grain in one go it is only partly digested, builds up in the hind gut, ferments and can cause severe damage to the gut, diarrhoea. Horses that have suffered serious colic with damage to the gut can develop laminitis, severe diarrhoea can cause it, as can septic conditions such as retained placenta. 

Laminitis symptoms 

Laminitis can be painful causing your horse to go lame or have a shuffling gait or not want to stand or walk at all. It causes wide spaced rings on the hooves with the hoof wider at the back than the front and sometimes they can have a flat or convex sole. Changes in the hoof can sometimes be seen before the laminitis becomes painful so if you notice changes get your horse checked by the vet.  

The pain can be worse in the front legs but usually affects all four limbs. Overload laminitis will only affect one hoof. The hooves can feel hot with a bounding pulse in the fetlock. There are other conditions that can cause these hoof symptoms so you should always consult you vet for a full diagnosis. 

Metabolic laminitis caused by Cushing’s disease (in which the pituitary gland doesn’t function properly) can also have delayed shedding of their coat, sweat more than normal, show weight loss and loss of muscle mass, develop a pot belly and can be excessively thirsty with bulging above the eyes.  

If you have the merest inkling your horse might be developing the condition consult you vet immediately as the best chance of recover comes from early diagnosis and treatment. 

How can laminitis be prevented?

Preventing inflammatory laminitis can be as simple as feeding your horse according to guidelines and making sure they can’t break into the feed store! Taking good care of your horse, getting prompt treatment for mares if they retain the placenta after foaling and worming your horse regularly will help to keep them healthy.

Supporting the limb bearing more weight in a horse with an injury can help prevent overload laminitis.

Cushing’s disease is an age-related condition seen in about 1 in 5 horses aged over 15. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to prevent your horse developing this condition. Metabolic laminitis can be prevented in horse with Cushing’s disease using drugs meaning they can be turned out, but you might need to restrict access to good grass in summer and autumn.

Knowing if your horse or pony is genetically pre-disposed to EMS can help you prevent metabolic laminitis caused by this condition. EMS is genetically inherited so if your pony is a native breed that can survive on poor quality feed, like the Shetland pony, or prone to gaining weight, they might be at risk of EMS and laminitis. A key indicator is bulging above the eyes (rather than a hollow) or changes in the hoof. Ask your vet to perform an in-feed glucose blood test to see if your horse can tolerate high levels of carbohydrate without creating excessive insulin. If they are prone to EMS keep them fit, healthy and lean, restricting their access to rich grass, especially in the growing seasons.  It’s important to let your EMS horse lose weight in winter so weight gain in the growing seasons doesn’t cause laminitis. 

Tips on caring for a horse with laminitis

If you suspect your horse has laminitis the first thing to do is call your vet, get a diagnosis and discuss a care plan for your horse. Vets might advise box rest to limit their pain. Make sure the bedding is deep and clean and sand might be more supportive than shavings, but it must be dry so they can dig their feet into the bedding. Your vet is also likely to prescribe pain killers and might advise getting your farrier to fit sole supports. 

During bouts of metabolic laminitis, you vet is likely to prescribe a low carb diet so forage is not reduced but the type is changed to reduce the amount of carbohydrate in their diet. Your vet can advise on suitable types of fed.

If laminitis is chronic (on-going and persistent) a big part of the treatment is remedial farrier care, so its great if you vet and farrier can work together to prescribe the best treatment alongside any drug treatments. If you horse has EMS, treatment is largely diet control and exercise, if possible.

Despite the serious nature of laminitis if caught early and dealt with effectively your horse can recover from the illness and enjoy good health. Even older horses with Cushing’s disease can improve significantly with the right drug treatment, although this is then needed for the rest of their life. Consult our horse insurance comparison page to learn more about the options available for horse health insurance. Having insurance could help you cope financially if your horse develops a serious condition such as laminitis.