To prevent laminitis, you need to avoid potential causes of laminitis.
Inflammatory and Overload Laminitis
For most cases of inflammatory laminitis, there is little you can do except perhaps make sure that horses cannot have feeding accidents by keeping the feed room door secured, making sure prompt veterinary attention for any mare who has foaled and retained her afterbirth, or any horse showing signs of severe illness and following general good husbandry guidelines in terms of feeding your horse an appropriate diet, making changes slowing, regularly getting your horse’s teeth checked and deworming your horse according to an appropriate plan. (See also our Colic page)
In some cases your vet might ice the feet while they are in hospital at risk for inflammatory laminitis (Figure 1) as this has been shown to reduce the likelihood of laminitis occurring and also reduce clinical signs in cases where it has already occurred. The ice needs to be changed approximately every 2 hours to keep the feet cool enough, so is reserved for horses in intensive care.
For overload laminitis prevention is aimed at supporting the limb that is bearing more weight as shown in Figure 6. Sadly, most causes of non-weight bearing lameness are accidents and we cannot prevent these.
Preventing Metabolic Laminitis (EMS and PPID)
PPID is a degenerative disorder of old age, much like Parkinson’s disease in humans. It is common, affecting around 1 in 5 horses aged 15 years and older, and also increases in prevalence for every year of age over 15 – so your 30 year olds are much more likely to have PPID than the 15 year olds.
However, it is inevitable that we all age and horses do too, so sadly PPID is no preventable. It is, however, treatable as described above ‘Treatment of PPID’ and on the TAL website.
Preventing Laminitis in Horses and Ponies with EMS
Of course, knowing if your horse has EMS or not is the most accurate way to determine its risk. If your horse is of a native breed or a ‘natural good doer’ (prone to gaining excessive weight) it might be genetically predisposed to EMS. More serious alarm bells should ring if your horse or pony develops bulging areas above his eyes (instead of the hollow that normal horses and ponies have) or develops the hoof changes described above like laminitic rings, dropped soles or separation at the white line (see Signs of Laminitis and What Causes Laminitis?).
If you suspect EMS in your horse, your vet can perform an in-feed or intravenous glucose test (Figure 2) to determine if your horse can tolerate carbohydrates without produce excessively high insulin concentrations that will cause laminitis (see What Causes Laminitis?).
If your horse does have EMS and does not yet have laminitis, then your main laminitis prevent strategy is to keep your horse fit and healthy without allowing it to accumulate too much bodyweight.
How do I keep my horse fit and in 'good' condition
Before you start working on keeping your horse trim, it is best to double check you are able to assess your horse’s fat properly. Dr Alex Dugdale from the University of Liverpool has produced Body Condition Scoring in Horses and Ponies that gives details on body condition scoring in horses and ponies which has arisen from her extensive research in this area.
Dr Alex Dugdale from the University of Liverpool has also provided Managing Weight Loss detailing weight loss strategies that you can employ to keep your horse the right BCS to prevent laminitis.
Of course exercise is also important and we must remember, many of our obesity prone horses were selectively bred to be able to exercise for many hours each day for transport, farming or war – so it is little wonder that if we exchange this for a sedentary lifestyle when we are busy at work or doing other important things, that the fat accumulates!
Advice on turn out
If your horse has a metabolic disease, it does not necessarily mean that pasture turnout is never going to be an option for your horse or pony in future. In fact, if your horse has PPID there is often no problem with maintaining a horse at pasture once medical treatment (Pergolide, licensed in the UK as Prascend) has been initiated, but your vet can test for this by measuring his hormone responses to injected or fed sugar. The results of this test will help your vet formulate recommendations about grazing. If your horse shows an abnormal insulin response, the vet may advise that grazing is restricted during higher risk periods like the late summer-Autumn when the pituitary gland is most active.
If your horse has EMS, then depending on how bad your horse’s hormone responses to injected or fed sugar are will determine if it is safe to be managed on pasture. In a research project carried out by the University of Liverpool in collaboration with Edinburgh University all EMS horses were able to be returned to some form of turnout once we had their hormones under control (but not before). The trick is testing the hormones to find out when it is safe to do so.
Most grass pasture in the UK has a high sugar content so turn out on grass can be very dangerous if this is unlimited and when the hormones are out of control. You may need to fence off a small area so you can manage the grazing and create your own ‘bare’ paddock or try the muzzle again. Muzzles should not be able to be removed if fitted properly so perhaps you should seek advice e.g. from your local tack store on how to fit it properly. Just check your horse can drink through it and the fencing is good enough to avoid your horse getting its muzzle caught.
The other thing to remember regarding 100% pastured horses is to use the natural seasons to keep your horse as safe as possible – allowing your EMS horse to lose weight over the winter months is vitally important to ensure the weight gain over spring and summer does not cause laminitis. Think of native ponies – that is how EMS horses/ponies evolved as ‘natural yo-yo dieters’ and to disrupt their winter weight loss by excessive supplementary feeding, rugging and housing is a key factor in causing problems with their hormones.
Figure 1 - Icing the feet of a horse in intensive care for a systemic inflammatory condition can help reduce the likelihood of laminitis occurring and also reduce the clinical signs in cases where laminitis has already occurred
Figure 2 - Preparing an in feed sugar test – glucose powder is mixed with a small quantity of chaff and feed to your horse. Blood samples are taken just before feeding and 2 hours later to check for insulin concentrations