by Judy Van Put
Spring is finally here. Along with the prospect of warmer sunny days, the greening of the grass and the first flower blooms comes the necessity for extra diligence in the care of horses’ feet.
There are a couple of conditions that commonly occur this time of year that can cause severe and long-lasting problems for your horse – yet each can be avoided by good stable practices and pre-planning.
A condition that can pop up suddenly is thrush. Thrush is caused by bacteria in the soil which grow in anaerobic conditions (where there is no oxygen), such as in the folds of the frog, the deep crevices of the horse’s hoof. The affected hoof will have a characteristically foul odor. When probed with a hoof pick, the frog is moist and deeper than normal, with a thick black discharge. It may be found in any or all four feet, but most commonly the hind feet. Thrush is found in wet, muddy conditions or when the horse is left standing in unhygienic conditions, such as a dirty stall, stable or hay feeding area where they spend much of the day.
Thrush can be prevented by cleaning your horse’s feet each day, making sure to pick out all the mud or manure that may be lodged around the frog. A hoof pick with a brush is helpful in allowing you to clean as deeply as possible on both sides of the frog without digging into the sole. The cleft area should be cleaned as well, and any debris should be removed from the sole. Your farrier should trim the frog just enough to keep the dirt and debris from being caught in the foot and should remove any flaps or pockets that will trap stones or dirt.
If your horse contracts thrush, the prognosis is good provided you find it relatively quickly and are diligent in caring for the feet. Treatment should begin by providing a dry, clean stall and turnout and removing (or having your vet or farrier remove) the diseased tissue. Clean the hoof at least once daily and apply a thrush preventive. Some horse keepers use a bleach product mixed with water, which can be effective if used with caution, applying the solution directly to the affected area. The use of a bar shoe may help in the regeneration of the frog after the disease has been halted.
The amount of time it takes to cure thrush depends on how severe the case is and how diligent you are in treating it. With a once- or twice-daily application of thrush preventive or bleach solution, it may take several days to several weeks. If the problem persists, contact your veterinarian.
Another springtime woe to watch for is grass founder or laminitis. Laminitis is a painful and debilitating disease. Prevention is always better than cure; when it’s not treated quickly or correctly it can cause permanent damage.
Commonly found in spring when horses eat too much grass, founder is a painful malady caused by the inflammation of the sensitive laminae of the foot. The laminae are tiny finger-like structures of tissue located between the hoof wall and the coffin bone in the foot that interlock to form a bond that is responsible for holding the hoof wall onto the horse’s foot. The two types of laminae – the sensitive dermal laminae and the insensitive epidermal laminae – interweave to secure the coffin bone to the hoof wall and keep the bone in place.
Founder may involve any or all feet, but it most commonly affects both forefeet, and may be acute or chronic. It’s caused by the overconsumption of the starches and sugars present in spring grass. While these non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) are present in all grasses during their growth stages, the concentration of sugar in spring grass is increased during rapid growth and after times of stress, such as after drought or due to freezing conditions (frost). When horses eat too much grass with high levels of NSC some of the carbs pass through the small intestine and spill into the hindgut where they are fermented rapidly; this rapid fermentation causes acidity in the cecum. The overload of sugar causes the good bacteria in the gut to die and, through a long chain of events, become toxins that travel down through the blood to the feet. The affected feet will feel hot, with a noticeably pounding pulse, and will be painful for the horse. Eventually, the heel of the foot can accelerate in growth, the coffin bone can rotate downward directly toward the sole (and in severe instances, can actually penetrate through the sole), the sensitive laminae are separated from the insensitive laminae and your horse is extremely lame.
Laminitis can be caused by other stresses, such as overeating grain or concentrated feed; horses that are overweight are more prone to this condition. Managing your horse’s diet and limiting their time initially in a pasture with lush spring grass can reduce the chance of founder. The best way to do this is to start with allowing the horse to graze on new grass for just a half hour a day. Increase the grazing time slowly, by a half to one hour over a couple of days, gradually increasing to full turnout. For horses that are pastured 24/7, try to have their first complete day of turnout occur late in the day so that they’ll be on pasture overnight and will sleep for part of that initial time.
A diagnosis of laminitis is made by reviewing the possible causes that attributed to the problem – such as a horse gorging itself on new grass or grain or even an overheated animal consuming too much cold water. In acute laminitis, the onset is sudden.
General symptoms to watch for include a rise in body temperature up to 106º F with an accompanying increase in respiration and pulse rate. In some cases, the pain is so intense as to produce spasms and profuse sweating. The horse will try to relieve the pain in its feet by shifting its weight, often “pointing” one front foot and then the other or bringing its hind feet well underneath it if they’re affected. The horse may lie down and rise only reluctantly, or it may stand and resist movement.
In mild cases, recovery may occur in about 10 days. In severe cases, the prognosis is poor and the condition is likely to terminate in chronic laminitis. The hoof becomes distorted with the front wall becoming concave. The hoof will become longer, the heels higher and the hoof walls will show ridges or wavy grooves.
Because of the possibility of hoof deformity, the prognosis is guarded. Only if the case is mild and treatment is prompt is there much hope of avoiding a dropped sole. If you suspect your horse has laminitis, contact your vet for a complete diagnosis and follow-up care.
Taking care to monitor your horse’s diet and feeding habits, as well as keeping their stall and standing areas clean and dry, will prevent these problems from cropping up this spring and will enable you and your horse to be able to enjoy the spring weather to come.