Founder in Horses 101: Causes, Treatment and Prevention


Founder is the old and often still-used name for laminitis in the United States and Australia. This is a very painful and potentially deadly disease of the hooves in horses, ponies, mules and donkeys. Laminitis was the killer of the 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat. Despite having access to the best veterinary treatment of the day in 1989, this priceless thoroughbred stallion could not be saved. This was the time when founder in horses began raising plenty of worries.

In recent years, laminitis was the final straw for the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, gravely injured in the Preakness. Founder in horses is hard to treat, but can sometimes be prevented. Laminitis can be in one or more hooves.

What Is Founder in Horses?

Inside of a horse’s hoof is a tissue that helps connect a bone called the coffin or pedal pone to the wall of the hoof. This tissue is called laminiae. When it gets inflamed, the result is laminitis or founder in horses. In severe cases, the animal is unable to stand because the bone has been rotated and bursts through the hoof wall. This usually causes the hoof wall to fall off.

The equine will display lameness, heat in the hoof and other symptoms of mild laminitis that need treatment right away. Otherwise, the hoof wall will fall off and the animal will need to be put down. This happens especially if laminitis is in more than one hoof.

What Causes Founder in Horses?

Exactly why some horses and ponies get laminitis and not others are unknown. Founder in horses seems to always be a secondary problem to another health problem. Overweight horses are most prone to getting laminitis. For example, Secretariat was overweight most of his life. So this is thought to have contributed to his developing sudden severe laminitis. Many illnesses of horses having nothing to do with the hooves are thought to trigger laminitis. These include the below.

  • Mares that have just foaled not being able to push out all of the afterbirth. This rots and causes infections.
  • Blood poisoning from any kind of infection.
  • Side effects from long-term or high doses of corticosteroid medications.
  • Cushing’s disease, also known as pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction or PPID. It impacts a horse’s insulin levels.
  • Trauma to the leg or legs.
  • Severe colic, especially if that was caused by overeating.

Treatment Options Available for Founder in Horses

Treatment of founder in horses depends upon how severe the condition is, the overall health of the horse and how many hooves the condition is in. Animals with mild laminitis are more likely to recover than those with severe laminitis. This condition is extremely painful and can worsen rapidly. So contact a veterinarian at the very first signs. Do not try to treat without the help of a veterinarian. There are many products online described as curing laminitis but many will not work. Do not trust them.

First place the animal in a stall with heavy cushioning bedding or a pasture with loose, sandy soil to help cushion the affected hoof or hooves. Take away any hay until the vet exam. A horse wild with pain may need sedatives before the vet check and may need them afterwards to help with treatment. The vet will then prescribe painkillers and possibly corrective shoes with cushions and pads to help the horse stand more comfortably. Horses in extreme pain or with one hoof wall about to fall off need to be placed in slings so they are not placing their full weight on their hooves.

Additional Useful Tips

  • The horse needs to be placed on a heavily restricted diet. Just what to feed differs greatly for each animal. It’s generally not a good idea to allow the affected animal fresh grass or sugary or molasses-based treats. A popular type of grain feed called sweet feed should also be avoided since it has molasses.
  • Do let the horse have as much water as he or she wants.
  • Any animal that recovers from an attack of laminitis will be prone to more attacks for the rest of his or her life.
  • Animals with chronic mild laminitis tend to develop flaky, weak hooves. They often can no longer tolerate their usual level of exercise without going lame or suffering hoof damage.

Prevention of Founder in Horses

Founder in horses and other equines is much easier to prevent than to treat. Fortunately, preventing founder also helps to prevent many other ailments. The most important ways to prevent laminitis include:

  • Keeping a horse at a healthy weight. If the horse needs to go on a diet, talk with a veterinarian about how to gradually change the diet to avoid colic. The horse may also need blood tests to make sure he or she is getting all the needed nutrients. If not, then supplements can be added to feed or water.
  • Not letting a horse overindulge in lush new pasture by putting on a grazing muzzle or limiting time in the pasture. Grass sugars which can lead to rapid weight gain are found in grass in mid-day. However, sugars lessen in the evening and early morning.
  • Exercising the horse every day on surfaces that are not too hard, such as concrete. Horses that work often on hard surfaces – such as racehorses or show horses – need appropriate shoes to help cushion the hooves.
  • Regularly test to determine if the pituitary gland is working normally. If it isn’t, then the horse could get Cushing’s disease or other insulin problems which can also trigger laminitis.
  • Keep the afterbirth of a foal for a vet to check to make sure it is entirely there. If not, the vet will need to remove the afterbirth manually from the mare to prevent infection.
  • Use corticosteroid medications as sparingly as possible. This can also help to prevent ulcers in horses.
  • Any equine undergoing a long trip in a van or airplane needs protective bandaging and pads. These help to prevent injuries that may trigger laminitis.

Final Thoughts

Once upon a time, founder in horses was a death sentence. But today there are many horses that can survive an attack or even repeated attacks. However, many others still die of this mysterious condition.

Caring horse owners will help keep a horse at a healthy weight, get regular blood tests and hoof trimming or shoeing every six weeks. These are necessary mostly to help prevent the condition that killed the mighty Secretariat.

Images: 1, 2.

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