Founder is an all-too-common word in the horse world and it doesn't need to be that way. Not only is founder preventable, but it is also treatable, with a much higher success rate than many ever dreamed of. It is a condition that is a result of laminitis, which is generally caused by mismanagement of one form or another.
Founder is not the problem among wild horses that it is among domesticated horses. Horses that are kept in unnatural lifestyles are at risk for many health problems, founder included. Practices that have proven to be detrimental to the horse's health include (but are not limited to) stabling, improper feeding, unnecessary vaccinating, and shoeing.
The terms laminitis and founder are often used interchangeably, but they are different. Laminitis is inflammation of the sensitive laminae, and founder is the resulting tissue damage and complications, including the structural breakdown of the hooves. The word 'founder' comes from 'to fall or sink, to plunge to the bottom', describing what happens to the bones inside the foundered hoof.
Fresh spring grass is often blamed for laminitis and founder. But is it really the culprit? Or is it merely the 'straw that broke the camel's back'? What is it about fresh spring grass that is so harmful to the horse? Not much, really, unless that horse is not accustomed to eating grass, in which case there is a very real danger.
Grass is composed of varying amounts of soluble and insoluble carbohydrates (sugars and starches). Glucose (sugar) is what ultimately gives the horse energy. Digestion begins with the horse chewing and grinding the grass, mixing it with saliva to start the digestive process. Once swallowed, the grass mixes with the stomach's digestive juices for a short time, then on into the small intestine it goes - where the grass's soluble carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients are absorbed, providing a usable form of the food for the body.
The insoluble carbohydrates, more difficult to digest, move to the pouch-like cecum to be broken down. In the cecum, enzymes produced by various microorganisms break down and ferment the insoluble carbohydrates. This process produces fatty acids (which when properly absorbed become a useful source of energy for the horse), carbon dioxide (gas), proteins, digestive enzymes and bacteria, and certain vitamins. Whatever is waste is eliminated via the intestinal tract.
It all sounds simple and safe, but here's the catch: IF the sugars reach the bowel before being digested completely, they ferment rapidly in the bowel, which can lead to excess gas (colic), an abundance of bacteria, and a build up of fatty acids. This excess acid and the dying off of excess bacteria become toxins to the horse, which affect the entire system and cause metabolic changes, affecting the blood flow to the hooves. This can lead to the development of laminitis and grass founder, especially if the hooves already lack proper circulatory function. Grazing too much and too fast to allow adequate digestion is one contributory factor to laminitis and founder; inadequate hoof function is another.
Why would a horse eat too much grass, and
There are several reasons.
-If a horse is kept confined and not given ample opportunity to eat grass when it is available, it would seem like reason enough to want to binge when the opportunity does arise. Something as attractive and delicious as fresh green grass would be hard to pass up.
-Horses with nutritional imbalances and deficiencies often attempt to correct these problems by eating a lot of what they need, but if their appetites have become deranged, they may go overboard.
-The grass may be imbalanced or deficient in nutrients, creating the need for increased ingestion. (The application of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and other farming malpractices damage and poison the soil.)
-Emotional issues have been known to affect appetite, both overeating and undereating.
-Horses know their schedules and their pecking order. If they know that time on a patch of lush grass might be limited, they may eat more and faster than they should.
-Drugs and medications may affect a horse's ability to realize they have had enough.
-The lack of other forage (herbs, weeds, brush, bark, leaves) means that not only is the horse limited to filling up on just grass, but it also keeps him from being able to balance nutrients (earlier point).
-The horse's teeth may be hurting him or preventing him from chewing sufficiently, causing him to swallow whole mouthfuls (grass bolting) - not good for digestion!
What can be done to prevent grass founder?
Horses who live naturally rarely have this problem. The horse's natural needs include having access to vegetation year-round, a natural living arrangement with room to exercise and graze freely, shelter without being locked in a stall, 24-hour turnout every day (including riding), a wide variety of vegetation, a herd (even just 2 is a herd), water, and varied terrain. Being barefoot (and properly trimmed) is necessary for proper hoof function, and exercise on these healthy hooves is important for proper functioning of the entire body.
Following these basic guidelines enables the horse to function as intended, and promotes optimal health. A healthy horse has better instincts, is more in tune with his senses and nature, and is less likely to hurt himself. Digestion is aided by movement, so if a horse grazes or is fed, then is placed in confinement, digestion will be less efficient. If a horse is being introduced to any change in feed, movement is very helpful. Providing supplemental nutrients, free choice if possible, is helpful as well. Avoiding chemicals, drugs, excess vaccinations, and a stressful lifestyle will also prevent problems.
Unshod hooves and a correct trim are vital to optimum hoof function and overall good health. Horses fall victim to laminitis and founder from nothing more than shod, neglected or improperly trimmed hooves, due to the mechanical stress inside the hooves and inhibited hoof function, let alone from systemic contributory factors. Because laminitis is a result of compromised blood flow into the corium (that feeds the laminae), whether mechanical or systemic, the oxygen and nutrients necessary to keep the laminae healthy cannot get there. The laminae then die, and the support mechanism for the bones of the hoof is lost. The result is founder. If the hoof were to have full function instead, with optimum blood flow and healthy laminae to begin with, then chances of laminitis and founder from systemic causes would be greatly reduced. The more a hoof has pre-existing corium damage, the less it takes to produce laminitis and founder.
The horse's teeth must be examined by a qualified equine dentist at least yearly. To digest his food properly, the horse must be able to chew efficiently. If the teeth have hooks, ramps, waves, or points, the horse cannot chew properly, if at all. Jagged teeth shred the insides of the mouth, and unevenness prevents the needed circular-sideways-forward-and-backward chewing movement of the jaw. Long incisors prevent the molars from contacting each other, making chewing difficult if not impossible, and pushing the incisors forward. Horses eat hay, which creates wear on molars but not incisors, so the incisors need care. Every horse (except perhaps a healthy horse living in 100% natural conditions in the wild) needs this intervention.
If a horse is living naturally and is still adversely affected by eating grass, consider homeopathy. Homeopathy addresses the whole horse, so it doesn't matter if the problem is physical or emotional, or if it is a recurring problem or a first-time emergency. Homeopathy can assist the body in rebalancing minerals, correcting absorption and elimination problems, detoxifying, digesting, and much more. Nux vomica is one premier remedy of use in digestive upsets. There are others helpful for indigestion/ colic (that key step between binging and laminitis) that may stop the problem in its tracks. Homeopathy can correct the underlying weaknesses, tendencies, and imbalances of the body and restore health. If a horse has emotional issues, flower essences and essential oils can be considered as well. Grass is natural and an ideal food for the healthy, naturally-kept horse.
One important point to remember is that stressors add up. There is fresh green grass in the spring, which may be one small source of stress until the horse's digestion adjusts. But what else is common in the spring? Horses are vaccinated, sometimes heavily. Horses are often dewormed in spring. Horses may be in need of a detox if they have been stalled and inhaling ammonia fumes all winter. Horses start to shed their winter coats and grow summer coats. Horses may be foaling, breeding, or commencing cycling.
One vaccine at a time, spaced out to minimize stress on the immune system and to maximize the opportunity to build a good immunity, is the best approach if using vaccinations. Avoid giving vaccinations when the spring grass is beginning to emerge; wait until after he has made that adjustment. No horse should be vaccinated if he is not healthy (it states that on the vial), because a vaccine is stressful to the body, and because he can't build a good immunity anyway when he is in a weakened condition. If a horse is prone to spring grass founder, or has any chronic problem or disease tendency, then is he really that healthy? He just might be exhibiting vaccination reactions rather than spring grass founder. Vaccination reactions are not always immediate. Symptoms may take two or three months or longer to develop and become apparent, and therefore are not associated with the vaccine. Vaccinosis is the name for adverse reactions (illness) as a result of vaccines; the vaccine 'assault' confuses or disrupts the immune system and it just goes haywire. Allergies and other autoimmune diseases are being linked back to vaccines. Homeopathy can help reverse these effects as well.
Deworming is another stressor and should be done at a time other than when the spring grass makes its appearance. This 'spacing out the man-made stressors' approach is better for the horse, and is a good way to narrow down the possible causes of laminitis, too.
It is common knowledge that a gradual re-introduction to pasture after a period of none is essential to prevent colic, laminitis, and founder. In the springtime, this happens naturally as the warm weather and rain encourage new grass growth. The sparse, short new grass emerges slowly enough for the horses in a natural environment to be only gradually accustomed to it again, but in many domestic situations, this is not the case because we wait until the pasture is more established. Spring grass contains higher levels of sugars, so when horses are newly turned out on it in spring, there should be limited access at first, gradually increasing it until the horses can be out on grass all day again. To limit intake of grass, there are also grazing muzzles that can be used. The holes in them allow just a few blades of grass through at a time. Monitoring of the horses is still necessary with these, however; horses may try to remove them by rubbing on fence posts, which could result in getting them caught, or getting them off.
What can be done to rehabilitate?
The use of heartbar shoes, bar shoes, backwards shoes, and other commonly used methods of founder rehabilitation are counterproductive. Raising the heels, applying molded pads, standing in sand, and stalling are also counterproductive. Because massive permanent damage has already been done inside the hooves, it is imperative to restore function and movability to what is left so that the new growth is optimized and correct. Hoof function cannot be accomplished with shoes. Hoof function is also inhibited by the fitted or foam pads and standing in sand, in that flexion of the sole is not possible.
A flat but non-concussive surface is best; it is gentle on the fragile sole yet the hoof can expand, flex and circulate. Trimming the hooves so that the internal structures are in the correct place is imperative. The coffin bone must be returned to its ground-parallel position (typically domesticated horses' heels are too high, which contributes to rotation, as do shoes in lifting the sole higher off the ground). The horse must be able to move around; being turned out with others helps keep him occupied and moving. Hoof boots can be applied when needed for walking and exercising.
Drugs and pain relievers are NOT recommended. Anti-inflammatories inhibit the desperately needed circulation in the hooves, and the horse should be able to feel his hooves as much as possible so he does not do further damage to them when he is moving about. The hoof repair and its resulting waste disposal (in the form of systemic waste filtered out through the liver and kidneys as well as abscesses) will be taxing enough on the system, so further chemical stress should be avoided.
Abscesses will happen during rehabilitation, but welcome them rather than curse them. Abscesses are the body's most efficient way of expelling debris and waste. Yes, the horse will be lame. Abscesses hurt for a reason; it is nature's safeguard against rupturing the abscess internally - that delicate 'trash bag' containing the waste could be readily broken with pressure, spilling all that debris the body so tediously collected. Rather than sending the waste out via the longer route (through the system and taxing the internal organs) it is collected in neat little pouches that make their way to the surface at the best place for expulsion. It can be quite counterproductive to dig out an abscess; let the body choose the best outlet.
Frequent light trimming to maintain the physiologically correct hoof structure alignment is imperative to minimize waste and maximize hoof function and healthy growth. As the new hoof is forming, there is much distorted growth (heel growth will greatly exceed toe growth) that needs to be kept in check approximately every 3 days for awhile.
Feeding high quality hay is best. Grain, spring grass, or anything that could cause a systemic upset should be avoided until there is systemic stability, and until there is adequate improvement in hoof function.
Of course, prevention is always better
than cure, and prevention is rarely a one-sided approach. Founder
is a complex problem, but there are ways to prevent it. The first
step in outsmarting founder is to get the horse's hooves correctly
trimmed and shoeless. Ride or trim him a lot to mimic natural hoof
wear. Feed the horse what he needs, not necessarily what we want
to feed him, and make changes g-r-a-d-u-a-l-l-y. Get him regular
dental check-ups and appropriate bodywork. Observe his tendencies
and address any problems homeopathically to restore optimum health.
Avoid pharmaceuticals and toxins. And most importantly, provide
a natural lifestyle and environment, naturally stimulating and challenging,
but not overly stressful.