Why Some Horses Don’t Get Laminitis
First of all, I’d like to begin by saying ANY horse can develop laminitis under the right circumstances. Bingeing on grain is one unfortunate example. But for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on pasture-associated laminitis–the kind of laminitis which it seems is becoming more and more common these days.
If you’re like me, you may be wondering why some horses develop this horrific condition while others never do? Or maybe you’ve heard of someone healing their foundered horse on grass and thought, what the heck? After much studying, observation, and pondering on this condition, I’ve developed a theory about all of this. I’ll get to that shortly.
But first, I’d like to back up just a bit. . .
You see, every day over the last few years, when driving my kids to school, I would notice four vibrant horses on a huge, lush pasture. The kind of pasture that just screams, founder! These horses weren’t overweight and they all appeared shiny, healthy, and happy. Much more so than the ones at the farm just down the road, where each horse was kept in an individual small pasture for the day (I believe they are stalled at night). I knew there was a reason why the four shiny horses were healthy and happy–they were living a much more natural lifestyle, but I still kept wondering–why haven’t they foundered?
Over the years, I’ve also marveled at a small herd of miniature horses which are kept on lush pasture just down the road from me. How was it that they weren’t developing laminitis when so many minis and small ponies do?
I’ve had horses nearly all my life and while they’ve always lived on pasture for the most part, it wasn’t until the last few years that I begin to worry each time spring rolled around. What if this was the year it happened? The problem wasn’t that anything had changed–it was just that I was more aware of pasture-associated laminitis, and I was terrified it would happen to my horses. I began to take measures to protect my horses such as keeping them confined in a dry lot or small pens during daylight hours (with hay, of course), building a track system, using grazing muzzles, etc. But all the while, a tiny voice kept saying in my head–is this really necessary?
In time, and as learned more (and began to develop my theory), my worries began to fade (along with my need to micro-manage my horses’ lifestyle). I developed a K.I.S.S. management plan which has taken a lot of the stress out of horse care for me.
But my theory is this: There are four factors which play a major role in the development of pasture-associated laminitis. They include stress, mineral imbalance, toxins, and seasonal/ environmental fluctuations affecting the sugar levels in grass. In most cases of laminitis, I believe at least three of these factors need to be in place. Yes, I realize I’m not a vet or a researcher, but this is what I’ve come to believe.
I also believe a natural lifestyle goes a very long way in preventing laminitis. This means allowing horses to have friends, forage, and freedom to move. The horses I’d been observing over the years have all three, and this is why they haven’t foundered.
Fortunately, I’m not the only one who sees it this way.
Several years ago, I bought a book by Joe Camp called Horses Were Born to Be on Grass, which helped to confirm some inklings I was having at the time. In this book, Joe documents his move from the desert lands of California to ‘Founder Valley’, Tennessee. It’s an experience he’s also written about in several articles, including one published in The Horse’s Hoof. Here’s an excerpt on Joe’s thoughts about ‘Founder Valley’ from that particular article:
I was worried about it to be sure, but I had done enough study of horses in the wild to feel that something was amiss with the local logic. It’s more complex than just sugar in grass. All grass everywhere in the world generates sugar. Can soil alone cause an over abundance? And how much does lots and lots of movement play into digestion and metabolism? Can supplements balance other things that if left unbalanced would be bad for the horse? And how much can stress from confinement and human-adjusted lifestyle play into metabolism imbalances. I didn’t know, but I was already researching to find out. One of the points of moving here was to be able to truly let the horses live like horses. Like they were genetically evolved to live.
Joe would go on to learn that the kind of pasture grass was extremely important when it came to preventing laminitis. Native grasses which weren’t treated with chemicals were much healthier than a single species of ‘improved’ grass which is also often sprayed and fertilized. He also learned the importance of variety. Horses aren’t designed to just eat one type of grass or plant.
My thought is (and I’m sure Joe would agree) is that variety will go a long way in ensuring vitamin/ mineral needs are met. And again, I very much believe mineral imbalance or deficiencies play a role in developing laminitis (as well as many other issues).
In the winter, when grass is dormant (or for horses living in pasture with little to no grass), feeding mixed-grass hay, along with a few supplements to cover what the hay is lacking, can achieve the same goal.
But Joe’s experience certainly isn’t the only one which documents that horses living naturally are less prone to laminitis.
I’ve also gotten to know Melanie Sue Bowles, the founder of Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary. Melanie and her husband, Jim, currently keep around fifty horses on over one hundred acres of lush pastureland in Georgia. Here is what she had to say about her experience (or lack, thereof) with laminitis:
Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary has been in operation for twenty-five years. We’ve intervened on behalf of hundreds and hundreds of horses, with many coming to live out their lives in our herd. The bedrock of our work is to provide as natural a life as possible, with wild horses as our model (without the breeding). Our rescue horses function as a herd, turned out on over 100 acres 24/7/365, unless one is injured or ill. They traverse grassy pastures, mildly rocky ground, and some sandy areas to reach water.
Our horses receive no processed grain. They have access to forage 24 hours a day, and thrive on grass and/or quality hay during dormant months. Over the years, we’ve taken in horses who had suffered founder before coming to us… we have never experienced one of these previously foundered horses RE-foundering. We credit this to a natural lifestyle.
Yet a third example of horses who don’t get laminitis is the herd of semi-feral ponies kept for research purposes by the University of Pennsylvania. This herd lives on 40 acres of good pasture and has thrived since 1994. This is what the researchers say on their website:
Perhaps the most striking overall observation is that with modest preventive health care, minimal supplementary feeding in deep winter, and almost no other veterinary care or human intervention, these ponies thrive nutritionally and reproduce prolifically. Mares are continually fertile, have very little reproductive wastage or difficulty, with no need for veterinary intervention. Hoof health remains excellent in most cases with minimal need for hoof trimming or other care. Lameness and colic are almost non-existent. Laminitis has not occurred in any case in the 11 years of the project.
I recently checked in with Dr. Sue McDonnell, who helps to oversee this herd, and she relayed that the ponies are still doing well. There are currently 118 in the herd with ten foals yet to be born this year. They still have not had one case of laminitis. (You can learn more about these ponies in this video.)
So, my hope is that more researchers will take notice of horses like the ones I’ve mentioned above–the ones living more like the way horses are meant to live–in a herd, on plenty of land (or on a track system) which promotes movement, and without so many of the stressors which are commonplace for other domestic horses.
To me, these horses are proof that laminitis doesn’t have to be one of those sad facts of life.