Feeding Strategies to Prevent Laminitis in Easy Keepers

What is laminitis?

Laminitis occurs when the tissues that connect the coffin bone to the hoof wall, called the laminae, become inflamed and the blood supply is compromised. The sensitive and insensitive laminae separate, damaging the structural integrity of the hoof. There are multiple causative factors that result in laminitis. They range from mechanical stress to digestive dysfunction. Laminitis varies in severity depending on the amount of damage inflicted on the laminae. Mild cases usually result in very little permanent damage to the laminae, while the more severe cases can result in founder, or the sinking of the coffin bone.

Exactly how changes in the digestive tract cause a restriction in blood supply and inflammation of the laminae in the hoof remains unknown, but researchers are actively looking for answers. What we do know is that through smart management you can reduce the risk of laminitis in your horse.

Nutritional factors that can lead to laminitis:

  • Consuming too much lush green grass
  • Grazing on stressed pastures
  • Weight gain and obesity

Use feeding strategies to reduce the risk of laminitis:

1) Limit access to lush pasture in at-risk horses, especially in the spring and fall.

Healthy horses have little problem adjusting to the changing fructan (a type of sugar) levels that occur in pasture grass, especially in the spring and fall of the year. The individuals most at risk for developing laminitis from overgrazing on fructan-rich grass are cresty-necked easy keepers.

Grazing strategies that limit access to dangerous fructan levels:

  • Limit grazing or stop it completely when daytime temperatures are warm and nights are below 40° F (spring and fall).
  • When days are sunny and nights are warm, limit grazing to the early morning.
  • Grazing in the late afternoon or evening on a warm sunny day is risky.

2) Manage your pasture properly.

When pastures are stressed grasses and weeds tend to accumulate more sugar in their leaves. In drought or overgrazing conditions, what little grass is left in your pasture may likely contain higher than normal levels of fructans. This increases the risk of laminitis in sensitive horses.

Most common weeds are more drought-resistant than grass, so they remain in the pasture when the grass is gone. The higher sugar levels make these weeds more palatable to bored and hungry horses looking for something to chew on. Stressed weeds can also contain higher than normal levels of toxins, making them more dangerous when consumed.

Grass and weeds that are rebounding after a drought can be dangerous for the same reasons, which is why many veterinarians report an increase in colic and laminitis cases when rain follows a period of drought.

When your pastures are stressed, use these feeding strategies to reduce the risk of laminitis:

  • Continue mowing to keep the weeds under control
  • Don’t overgraze your pasture, especially during a drought
  • Fertilize with care to reduce nitrate poisoning
  • Give your pasture a chance to recover after the drought is over
  • Supplement your pasture with hay and a balanced vitamin and mineral pellet

When pastures are healthy and growing:

  • Clip your pasture between four and eight inches in height.
  • Don’t allow pastures to become overgrazed, since stress can increase fructan levels in grasses.
  • Rest each pasture every two months.

3) Don’t allow horses to become overweight, but don’t starve them!

Generally when a horse becomes overweight it is because the owner is overfeeding calories, more than likely in the form of concentrates. Overweight horses are at risk for multiple metabolic diseases and digestive disorders. Maintaining a healthy weight is extremely important to your horse’s well-being.

Many owners have been told that they must starve their easy keeper, but nothing could be further from the truth. Starving your easy keeper only serves to slow his metabolism more. Extended fasting can lead to a dire ailment known as fatty liver disease. It is important that your easy keeper receives adequate nutrition even when they are relegated to the dry lot or living in a grazing muzzle. Forage (hay or limited good-quality pasture) will meet an easy keeper’s energy requirements and a concentrated vitamin/mineral supplement should be offered to meet his body’s nutrient requirements.

Horses that tend to be on the “heavier” side are at greater risk for laminitis caused by hindgut imbalances. Keeping the GI tract balanced by offering a complete digestive support supplement lowers the risk of both laminitis and colic, while ensuring that all the nutrients in the diet are effectively absorbed.

The following feeding strategies will help reduce laminitis in easy keepers:

  • Cut out completely or feed limited amounts of concentrates (sweet feed or pellets) that are high in starch/sugar.
  • Provide at least 1.5% to 2% of your horse’s body weight in fiber each day (15 to 20 lbs for a 1,000 lb horse).
  • If weight gain is an ongoing problem, feed a low-quality, clean grass hay.
  • Add alternate fiber sources such as beet pulp and soybean hulls to support gut health and replace starch- and sugar-laden concentrates.
  • Provide a balanced vitamin and mineral supplement to fill in nutritional gaps.
  • Support a balanced digestive tract by providing a complete digestive supplement with probiotics and prebiotics.
  • Supplement with natural vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids if grazing on green grass is limited.

Keep in mind that exercise can do wonders for these horses. A little bit of exercise in an easy keeper can go a long way to increasing his metabolic rate.


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