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Feeding Horses to Prevent Laminitis


Martin W. Adams, PhD, PAS, Equine Nutritionist for Southern States

Laminitis is a debilitating and costly disease that can affect any horse, and is the most common cause of death due to euthanasia that ranks third in the list behind colic and old age. Laminitis is inflammation of the laminae, which are the microscopic structures that connect the hoof capsule to the coffin bone of the horse’s foot. Severe or clinical laminitis results in separation of the laminae from the coffin bone and pronounced changes in hoof structure and painful lameness, along with costly treatment and the uncertainty of a successful return to a normal condition. While we still don’t understand the exact events that lead to laminitis, we know more about the causes of laminitis than ever before, and prevention is the key. There are three areas in feeding horses that we need to focus on for prevention of laminitis:

  1. Pasture is the most frequent cause of laminitis for the horse due to excessive consumption of soluble carbohydrates or sugars present in the grass.  Managing access to pasture to avoid overgrazing in spring and fall, when grasses are stressed due to freezing or poor fertilization, and when sunlight is abundant and photosynthetic rate is highest in the afternoon; is critical as all of these conditions result in increased sugar content of grass pasture and increased risk for laminitis.

  2. Horses that become obese can develop insulin resistance and this condition is called equine metabolic syndrome or EMS. Also, pony and certain "easy keeper" horse breeds are likely to have a genetic predisposition to EMS. Insulin resistance (IR) is characterized by high blood levels of insulin and sometimes high blood glucose levels as well.  Horses with IR are more likely to have laminitis and must be managed more carefully to avoid obesity and excessive pasture grazing to reduce the risk of laminitis.

  3. Equine nutrition research has found that horses with IR have a greater glycemic response to starch and sugar content of horse feeds, which results in higher blood glucose and insulin levels and makes them more likely to have laminitis. Southern States is a member of an international animal nutrition research organization, Cooperative Research Farms, which has done extensive glycemic studies on normal and IR horses. Southern States has developed feeds and feeding recommendations for IR and normal horses to reduce the risk of laminitis, for more information contact your local Southern States Feed Specialist.

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