Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Pretty Green Pasture Brings Hidden Problems for Horses


Pet Column for the week of May 14, 2001


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

Spring weather brings pretty green pastures filled with luscious foliage. During this time, both horses and their owners are eager to get out and enjoy the weather, but horse owners should be aware that a green spring pasture can harbor problems.

Laminitis (also called founder) is a condition that consists of a breakdown of the connection between the sensitive laminae on the inside of the hoof and the hard outer layer of the hoof. The two layers connect with one another and together provide support for the third digit, or coffin bone, which is found deep inside the hoof.

When the laminae are damaged, lameness occurs. Healing is slow to occur and can take as long as 6 to 18 months. In some cases, healing never occurs, leaving the horse permanently lame. Once a horse has had laminitis, the chances of getting it again are good.

Laminitis is caused by many factors, and one of them is an excess of protein and soluble carbohydrates in spring pasture. In the spring horses should be introduced to pasture gradually.

Dr. Dean Scoggins, retired equine Extension veterinarian from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, says, "Owners should introduce horses to pasture gradually, starting with one hour per day and increasing the time by hour to 1 hour per day until the horses are on pasture full time."

This slow introduction, along with feeding good quality hay, will also help to ensure that your horse does not develop colic, another danger associated with spring pasture.

Overweight animals, sensitive horses, and ponies are especially susceptible to laminitis, so care should be taken when introducing them to pasture each spring. Also, older horses that have fat deposits in their necks, withers, and buttocks are more likely to develop laminitis. This may be due to Cushing's syndrome, an incurable pituitary gland abnormality that can be controlled with daily medication. Mares that have retained the placenta after foaling can develop laminitis due to uterine infections.

Laminitis can also be caused by overzealous horse owners who want to ride when the weather starts to get nice. Excessive riding when a horse is not in good physical condition can cause the mechanical breakdown of the laminae in the hoof.

Regardless of the cause, laminitis should be considered a medical emergency. It usually occurs in both front feet and sometimes in all four at the same time. The horse will display a reluctance to walk and to turn and may be unable to back up. All of these signs result from painful pressure that builds up within the capsule of the hoof.

Treatment for this problem is determined on an individual basis. It may include pain medication, hoof pads, special shoes, and hoof trimming. Each case is different, and the treatment should be tailored to the individual. The most important thing that the horse owner can do is to call his or her veterinarian when the problem is first noticed.

Dr. Scoggins says, "It is imperative to call your veterinarian at the first sign of trouble, just as you would for a severe laceration, a case of colic, or a difficult foaling."

If you see your horse having any trouble with lameness this spring, do not wait to see if the problem will get better. Call your equine veterinarian immediately!