What Does It Mean When a Horse Founders

When a horse founders, they are suffering from a painful condition that affects their feet. Sometimes referred to as laminitis, when foundering is left untreated, it can cause a horse to become permanently lame. In severe cases, euthanasia is considered the only compassionate response to the condition.

Foundering can be caused by multiple issues. To treat the condition, it is necessary to identify the reason why it developed in the first place. There can be cases caused by inflammation, overload, and metabolic issues.

Always seek the advice of an experienced veterinarian if there is a suspicion that your horse is foundering.

What Is Laminitis?

When a horse founders, then the hooves that are affected become hot and painful. The horse can feel pain pulses surge through their fetlock and pastern. If it is present, then it can damage or weaken the attachments that support the hoof wall and the pedal pone. In some instances, the attachments can elongate or even break, which lessens the supports of the pedal bone and the hoof capsule.

Foundering occurs when these attachments lose enough strength that the pedal bone shifts and rotates away from the hoof wall. In some instances, the bone can shift so that it begins to point downward. In severe cases, the pedal bone has even been known to penetrate the sole. It may also sink or do all of the above in varying combinations.

When laminitis transitions into foundering, the amount of pain the horse experiences is excruciating. Unless immediate surgical intervention occurs, some cases require euthanasia for humane reasons. 

How Can I Tell What is Causing a Horse to Founder?

Most causes of foundering have reasons that are obvious. 

If the horse becomes ill for some reason or has a fever, then the white blood cell count will rise. Horses might also have watery stools. These are all indications that if foundering is present, it is due to inflammation.

For horses that cannot put any weight on one specific leg and it has been a progressive issue, then this is an indication that the horse is suffering from overload laminitis.

When a horse appears fine, but ends up being lame, then this is a good indication that a metabolic foundering issue is present. Treating this condition requires an ongoing treatment plan administered by the horse’s veterinarian.

How to Care for Laminitis and Foundering

If a horse has been diagnosed with an acute case of laminitis and foundering is not an issue, then there are three common treatment options that are recommended by veterinarians.

#1. Painkillers can help to improve daily living opportunities for the horse while the laminitis issue is being addressed. Horses can react negatively to high doses and long-term doses of painkillers, so consult with a veterinarian about what the proper dose should be and if there are any side effects that may be concerning.

#2. Rest allows the weakened structures to begin healing. Exercise that occurs with laminitis can cause those structures to break, which leads to foundering. If the laminitis is classified as being moderate-to-severe, then box rest is a common recommendation.

#3. Foot supports will help to take the pressure off the affected feet. Horses prefer to have soft, deep bedding that allows the hoof to sink into the material and be surrounded by it. Sand is popular, as are shavings, but it must be dry and loose for it to provide an adequate level of support. Make sure the bare areas of the stable are given supports and not just the box. Sole support is also possible with hoof padding that can be strapped to the horse.

One of the biggest issues that horses face when diagnosed with laminitis or dealing with a case of foundering is boredom. Horses do not like to be confined. If they’re forced to rest in their box, then their behavior will degrade over time. Stall toys are a good solution to prevent boredom, as is a stall that has a window.

Some forms of metabolic laminitis require ongoing treatment to prevent the condition from turning into foundering. The horse may be encouraged to lose weight or begin a diet that encourages long-term weight loss. Added exercise is often recommended as well. Medication can help the horse manage their laminitis if diet and exercise are not enough to control the condition. 

How to Prevent Laminitis

To prevent laminitis and foundering, it is necessary to avoid all potential causes of this condition.

Inflammatory laminitis is the most difficult to prevent. In many acute cases, there is little that anyone can do. Make sure that the door to the feeding room, if you have one, is kept secure. Mares that have foaled, but retained the afterbirth, should be assessed by a veterinarian immediately. Reducing the risk of colic by making slow feeding changes and giving the horse an adequate level of exercise can help as well.

For overload laminitis, the primary cause of this condition is usually an injury. Preventing injuries means removing potential hazards that the horse could encounter, especially with their hooves. Because this issue is usually caused by an accident, there is not much that can be done to prevent laminitis from developing.

One form of metabolic laminitis, called PPID, is not preventable. It is degenerative disorder that affects senior horses. About 20% of horses above the age of 15 will be affected by PPID. Every additional birthday for the horse will increase the risk of suffering from this form of laminitis. It is treatable once discovered, however, and many horses with PPID continue to live fulfilling lives.

EMS is a second form of metabolic laminitis that occurs in horses that are genetically prone to gaining weight easily. Look for bulging around the eyes or rings around the hooves to see if this condition may be present. Dropped soles can be an indication of EMS as well. In many ways, this form of laminitis is similar to diabetes in humans. If you suspect this condition, ask your veterinarian to conduct a glucose test to determine insulin production levels.

In every circumstance, maintaining a healthy weight, receiving exercise, and avoiding injury will help to reduce the risks of laminitis developing. It is impossible to prevent every possible case of this disorder, but when it can be recognized quickly, it can be treated right away. That is your best defense against the potentially life-threatening issue of foundering.