Herbal Support for Founder
What is founder?
Founder, also known as laminitis, is inflammation of the sensitive laminae, or layers of tissue, of the hoof. This disorder can afflict either young or old horses, backyard companions or athletic competitors, and any breed. Although the causes of founder are varied, they trigger a systemic disturbance that affects the hoof by disrupting the normal blood flow to and from the hoof. Lack of proper blood flow causes a lack of oxygen to the laminae, which become damaged and die, leading to further tissue damage and deterioration within the hoof.
When the laminar bonds weaken, the system of support within the hoof weakens. Without a good bond, the pedal bone, or coffin bone, inside the hoof begins to detach from the hoof wall and can rotate downward toward the sole. The weight of the horse forces the detaching bone down into the inner hoof, shearing and damaging blood vessels and nerves and crushing the tissue of the sole, causing severe pain and often irreparable damage.
Once the horse has foundered, he will be more susceptible to founder in the future and may be unable to perform to his full potential. A case of founder can be so extreme that it requires euthanasia. It is therefore a condition to be prevented whenever possible.
Avoiding the cause
The causes of founder are numerous and include:
Sudden change to lush grass or legumes such as alfalfa
Carbohydrate overload such as consumption of too much grain
Drinking cold water after rigorous exercise
Bacterial or viral infections, illness, colic, severe stress, toxicity
Drugs, chemicals, toxins
Result of concussion or impact to the hooves from work on hard surfaces
Hormonal changes during the estrous cycle
That's quite a list, and it is obvious that most of the causes are man-made due to unfavorable management practices. Horses in the wild are subjected to changes in diet, but they happen gradually in nature. Grains are sparse, and not sweetened. The wild horses exercise and drink on their own terms and have good resistance to disease, naturally. They are not vaccinated and they face little threat of drugs, chemicals and toxins. They don't wear shoes and their hooves are naturally tough, sturdy, healthy, and balanced - hard surfaces or no hard surfaces. They have access to wild plants and herbs when they need or want them, and they rely on nature to guide them in their choices.
So how can we help the domesticated horse? We must be careful of what the horse eats. Feed grains whole, clean, and fresh; avoid sweetened and processed feeds. Store feeds safely. Work the horse sensibly and carry Rescue Remedy (see Flowers to the Rescue!, NHM Volume 1, Premier Issue) in case a ride turns into a stressful situation. Build up your horse's health, immunity and resistance to disease (see Boosting Immunity: Nosodes, Vaccines, Health, NHM Volume 1, Issues 1 and 2). Avoid chemicals, preservatives, and the indiscriminate use of drugs - learn about the natural alternatives. Vaccinate only when necessary and consider titers (see Barn Buddies, Vaccinations: What Will You Do This Year?? in this issue). G-r-a-d-u-a-l-l-y introduce pasture, particularly during spring and fall.
How can pasture, a horse's natural food, be harmful? It can cause problems if it isn't digested efficiently. Here's what happens: There are certain times of the year when grass has high levels of sugars which can be great sources of energy but can be harmful to the system if the horse is not accustomed to them. Warm clear days and cool nights are the ideal conditions for the build up of sugars, especially after rain when growing conditions are good. Carbohydrates such as starches and sugars are not completely digested before they reach the bowel and this can create a problem. These undigested starches and sugars ferment much faster than the fiber in hay, for example, which can lead to an abundance of bacteria and a build up of acid if the acid is not absorbed fast enough. (The acids, when properly absorbed, provide a useful source of energy for the horse.) This excess acid in the gut is the first step in the development of founder, and how founder develops from this point is extremely complicated, but the greater the amount of starch and sugar fermentation, the greater the build up of acids and the greater the risk of founder. The risk depends on how much the horse eats, how quickly he eats, and how efficiently he digests what he eats before the fermentation process sets in.
Herbs can help prevent founder
Herbs contain a wide variety of balanced nutrients and have numerous medicinal properties. Before domestication, horses roamed extensive terrains instinctively selecting various plants to satisfy their needs. In domestication, the horse's access to a variety of plants is very limited. Supplementing with herbs can help restore the diet to balance, prevent disease, and aid in recovery from illness. Herbs are not necessarily the most appropriate course of action for every condition, so it is important to consult your veterinarian and qualified herbal specialist for guidance before treating with herbs.
Because the causes of founder and its effects are numerous, there are numerous herbs of benefit when used appropriately. There are many different properties and actions among herbs, and varying nutritional contents. Some herbs are largely medicinal; some are largely nutritional. Some have increased action when combined with other herbs. It is true that various conventional drugs are derived from herbs but drugs act in a different way from herbs. With a drug, an isolated active ingredient (usually in concentration) addresses the symptoms. With herbs, because the herbs remain "whole" and complete in their composition, the properties maintain a balance and work together, addressing the patient as a whole.
For founder prevention, herbs can be used to aid digestion, cleanse the body, improve bodily functions, restore balance to the system, and promote healthy tissue growth.
To help prevent founder, the following herbs can be very beneficial.
For efficiency of digestion, especially for horses with recurring founder:
Burdock Root - stimulates digestion, helps purify and cleanse the blood
Chamomile- improves circulation and digestion, and is anti-inflammatory
Horehound - aids in digestion
For cleansing, to aid the body in flushing out toxins that may build up and lead to another laminitis episode:
Cleavers - lymphatic cleanser for a thorough body flush. It is also high in silica, a mineral that helps ensure strong hooves.
Dandelion root or leaf - helps to clear the body of waste matter and toxins. It is mineral rich, drawing nutrients from deep in the subsoil.
Blessed thistle - aids circulation and helps with liver problems.
Milk thistle seed powder - for cleansing the liver. This should be considered for horses that have been on heavy drug therapies or steady use of pain relievers; if the liver is not working properly, then the body cannot expel toxins from the system.
Comfrey - helps cleanse, helps soothe inflamed tissues, promotes fast healing, especially of bone and connective tissue. Loaded with nutrients.
Nettle - drying it removes the sting; very nutritious. Stimulates circulation and is a general blood cleanser and conditioner.
Dealing with founder
Some early signs of founder, which occur in the developmental stage before lameness sets in, may be incoordination, anxiety, increased heart rate, immobility and a marked reluctance to turn. Consider these signs an early warning system, especially if the horse has a tendency toward laminitis; treat these signs as serious and CALL THE VETERINARIAN IMMEDIATELY. Early intervention is critical.
Later signs, considered the acute stage, indicating that founder is under way, may be a rocked-back stance, lameness, reluctance to move forward, and evidence of extreme pain such as heavy breathing, flared nostrils, and patches of sweat.
Timely treatment and proper management of the case can arrest the progression of founder. Ideally, the damage from acute founder will completely heal and the new hoof tissue will be just as strong as before. However, when the hoof collapses, indicating a chronic condition, it is a very grim situation.
The chronic phase technically begins as soon as there is rotation, or sinking, of the coffin bone.
When the hoof collapses (coffin bone sinks or rotates), the blood vessels lying between the sole and coffin bone are trapped and compressed to a point that blood cannot get through. As this is happening, the blood vessels between the hoof wall and coffin bone stretch and tear as the bone moves away from the wall. The coffin bone may actually break through the bottom of the hoof.
Founder devastates the entire hoof, the horny capsule of wall, sole, and frog encasing bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, nerves, blood vessels, and connective tissues. The blood vessels in the laminitic hoof go through changes and become over-reactive to normal stimulation. This may explain why some chronic laminitis horses seem to be prone to having repeat episodes. Infections readily set in and abscesses may form within the hoof. Appropriate treatment will be a group effort among the farrier, veterinarian and other specialists. Good supportive care such as proper nutrition, avoidance of unnecessary drugs and chemicals, and the implementation of natural therapies can do much to encourage new hoof growth and aid recovery. For susceptibility to founder, homeopathic constitutional treatment can be very beneficial. Homeopathy is a very effective, unique modality that is very different from herbal medicine but can be used in conjunction with herbal therapy. Homeopathy offers the chance for a brighter, healthier future in all sorts of chronic conditions because it addresses the underlying imbalances in an individual.
Horses can be fed a preventative type of herbal combination as previously mentioned. Cleavers, dandelion root or leaf, comfrey, blessed thistle, and milk thistle seed powder work well to reduce endotoxins in the blood.
Normal blood flow through the foot may be mildly or severely altered. Herbs can assist greatly in this circumstance by promoting healthy circulation. Hawthorne berry excels in normalizing blood flow and pressure, especially peripheral circulation (limbs and hooves).
Foundered horses commonly have infections and abscesses in their feet. Goldenseal works well for deep-seated infections, but the price is quite steep for treating equines. Instead, a garlic and hawthorn blend works well. Garlic is one of the most widely used herbs. It has a number of uses including improving circulation and is highly beneficial for horses prone to laminitis.
Adding pain-relieving herbs such as white willow and devil's claw is also helpful and the horse can possibly forego butazolidin. White willow bark is a pain reliever and antiinflammatory which is very useful for laminitis and navicular syndrome. Devil's claw is a very effective antiinflammatory and pain reliever. Celery, seed or stalk, has anti-inflammatory action and helps improve the appetite. Chamomile is anti-inflammatory and improves circulation and digestion. Comfrey leaf helps soothe inflamed tissues and promotes fast healing, especially of bone and connective tissue.
The use of an herbal hoof pack may help with infections and abscesses in founder cases. A hoof pack of comfrey leaf, plantain leaf, powdered marshmallow root and a drop of tea tree oil, moistened with warm water, can be applied to the hoof sole and kept in place for 48 hours to help draw out heat and possible infections.
Among the herbs beneficial for strengthening the hoof and encouraging the growth of healthy horn and tissue are kelp, rose hips and garlic. Kelp is very beneficial to hooves because it is an excellent source of naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, iodine and other nutrients. Rose hips improve hoof strength and condition; they contain bioflavonoids and are an excellent source of vitamin C. Supplemental methionine and biotin are sometimes added to the diet to facilitate the growth of healthy hoof. Any herbs that stimulate and encourage circulation and blood supply to the hoof will improve the quality and quantity of growth.
When dealing with a case of founder, always consult your veterinarian immediately. Treating at an early stage vastly improves the prognosis. Be sensible and aim for prevention of founder by maintaining sound, health-promoting, farm management practices.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace veterinary or other professional care. Always include your veterinarian and farrier in the care of founder. Consult your veterinarian and equine herbal specialist before using herbal preparations.
Natural Horse Magazine thanks Patti Duffy-Salmon of Meadowsweet Acre Herbs for her help in preparing this article.