Founder in Horses – Symptoms and Causes

Last Updated on December 26, 2022

“Founder” is a term frequently thrown around in the equestrian world.  Phrases like, “that horse foundered,” are often said and always dreaded.  Founder in horses, also called laminitis, can affect all horses and is important for all horse owners and horse people to understand.

The founder is treatable, but it can be life-threatening if not treated properly and in a timely manner.  Because of this, it’s important for all who spend substantial time with horses to be able to identify the founder.

In this article, I’ll be discussing what the founder is, what causes the founder, what the symptoms of the founder look like, how to treat the founder once a horse is infected, and how to prevent the founder before it develops.

Who is the Founder of Horses?

Founder or laminitis is an infection of tissues between a horse’s hoof and pedal bone.  It is an extremely painful condition that causes horses great discomfort in their feet.  The tissues affected and inflamed are called the laminae, hence the name laminitis.

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When these tissues become inflamed, they weaken, and the pedal bone can begin to push through them, putting pressure on the hoof itself.  This pressure makes it extremely painful for horses to put weight on the feet affected.

Horses can go lame (i.e.- walk with a limp) from laminitis, and they can also become unable to walk or use their feet at all.

What Causes Founder in Horses

The most prominent and well-known cause of the founder is overeating of rich foods.  Similar to diabetes in people, the founder in horses can be caused by eating too much or eating lots of rich foods.  Overeating-rich foods could look like access to too much grass, too much alfalfa, and even too many treats.

Other less common causes include blood poisoning resulting from other infections, colic, any exterior trauma to a horse’s hooves, excessive weight-bearing on one hoof over the other three, and the drinking of large amounts of cold water, especially in an already cold climate.

Symptoms of Founder

There are several symptoms of the founder, though some of these symptoms can be symptoms of less severe conditions.  It is important to consult experts, including vets, when analyzing these symptoms in your horse or horses belonging to others.

Signs of Founder in Horses

One of the most tell-tale signs of the founder is when a horse leans back, almost looking like it is stretching.  Horses do this to try to alleviate the built-up pressure in their infected legs.  Horses will also turn up lame, meaning that they move with a noticeable limp in one or more of their legs.

What Causes Founder in Horses

Horses with founders also prefer to be lying down to standing up. This is because standing up likely hurts.  But, you need to be careful with this one. Many horses prefer to sleep lying down. So, for this to be a symptom of the founder, it needs to be clear that the horse is laying down more frequently than normal. It may also need to be accompanied by other symptoms before the founder is suspected.

Treating of Founder Horse

There are many ways to treat the founder.  Some of them are based on whatever caused the horse to founder, and some are simply based on what is going to make the horse more comfortable.

For example, if it is determined that a horse foundered because of too much access to rich food, different turnout circumstances may be arranged, or a horse’s grain may need to be switched.  And, he may need to be put on a temporary diet excluding cookies and treats.

Horses that have foundered should also be walked on harder surfaces such as sand or dirt footing, which will give their feet more support while the tendons heal.  The added support will also decrease the pain in the horse’s infected feet.

Horses that have foundered can also be supported by fake shoes or shoe-like devices.  There are many such devices on the market, some of which your vet may recommend to you.  The most common one that I have seen is simply duct-taping a horse’s foot to styrofoam supports or special sterile pads.

One of the biggest ways horse owners help treat horses that have foundered is by corrective farrier work.  There are methods and materials farriers can use to relieve pressure on a horse’s foot.  

Horses that have foundered will also frequently need more regular farrier care than horses that have not foundered.  This will help the horse stay comfortable and even prevent the horse from being infected again.

So, no miracle drug will cure a horse from the infections that the founder brings.  But, there are very clear, non-veterinary methods for helping your horse heal from it to become healthy again!

Preventing Founder

The founder can seriously affect a horse’s health, comfort, and well-being. So, it would be preferable if it could be prevented before it wasn’t even an issue. Sometimes, a founder happens regardless of what precautions are taken, but it never hurts to take preventative measures.

First on the list of founder prevention is obvious; make sure your horse has a balanced diet, especially during the changing of seasons when their diet may be changing from grass to hay.  Sometimes supplementing different feeds into a diet in the absence of others can help, depending on the horse’s situation and feed routine.

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Second, make sure your horse is seen regularly by a farrier.  Keeping the exterior or a horse’s hoof healthy can help prevent causes of founder such as excessive weight bearing on one leg in particular.

Third, make sure your horse gets exercised regularly.  This doesn’t necessarily have to be riding- it could be lounging, free lounging, hand walking, etc.  A horse that moves more is going to be healthier overall, and have healthier feet.

How Long Does it Take For a Horse to Get Laminitis?

The onset of laminitis can either be slow and progressive, such as when a horse has equine metabolic syndrome, or it may be more rapid if triggered by an unusual event. In the latter situation, the symptoms of laminitis may be seen between 1 and 3 days after the event.

Triggers of laminitis include excessive administration of steroids, excessive consumption of foods containing high levels of sugar in the form of carbohydrates, or a stressful incident. Some medical conditions such as septicemia or endometriosis can also trigger laminitis in horses.

Why do steroids cause laminitis in horses?

As with many things to do with laminitis in horses, it is not entirely clear why steroids can trigger this painful condition. Steroids are commonly administered to horses to reduce inflammation, and in higher doses, they have been linked to the sudden onset of laminitis. If your horse requires steroids, your veterinarian will normally discuss the risk factors of using this medication and outline the early signs of laminitis to watch out for.

How to Trim a Horse With Founder?

Regular hoof trimming is one of the most important aspects of treating a horse with a founder. This type of trimming, known as remedial farriery, is a specialist technique aimed at making the horse more comfortable and minimizing structural changes within the hoof capsule.

Remedial trimming of a horse with a founder is normally carried out by a farrier working alongside a veterinarian. They may take radiographs of the horse’s hooves to assess the shape of the hoof wall about the bones underneath. This will allow them to decide how the hoof needs realigning to make the horse more comfortable.

In the case of the founder, it is normal to trim the hoof in a way that shapes the hoof wall to realign it with the pedal bone. This may involve altering the angle of the hoof wall and lowering the heels. In some situations, specialist shoes or hoof supports may be used to relieve pain and prevent structural changes within the hoof.

Founder trims can be carried out as frequently as every two weeks, as this time interval allows just a small amount of trimming at a time. Never attempt to trim a horse with the founder yourself, as you may cause permanent damage to the structures inside the hoof.

Can a horse founder from being trimmed too short?

Horses will not necessarily founder from being trimmed too short, but they can become quite uncomfortable. A short trim often leads to the horse being footsore for some time, as the sole of the hoof comes into contact with the floor. When a horse walks the weight should be carried on the outside wall, and any pressure on the sole can cause painful bruising.

If your farrier has accidentally trimmed your horse’s feet too short, hoof pads or temporary plastic shoes can help to relieve the discomfort. Avoid exercising your horse if it appears at all footsore – this will be particularly noticeable on hard or stony ground. It may be necessary to ask your veterinarian to provide anti-inflammatory medication to relieve the pain caused by excessive trimming of the hooves.

How do you treat a founder on a miniature horse?

The founder of a miniature horse should be treated in just the same way as any other type of horse. The main problem with miniature horses is that it is not always so easy to identify the level of lameness, so regular assessment with hoof testers may be required to assist with this.

As with all cases of the founder, miniature horses should be confined to a small area to restrict their movement. A full-size stable may be too large for this purpose, so it may be necessary to split a stable in half using a gate or partition.

Can You Ride a Horse With Mild Laminitis?

Horses with laminitis, no matter how mild, should never be ridden or exercised. It is recommended that horses with laminitis are kept on strict box rest with limited movement to allow the inflammation in the laminae to resolve. During this phase of inflammation, the laminae are very weak, and any movement will increase the risk of separation between the hoof wall and the pedal bone.

Can a horse jump after laminitis?

It is entirely possible for a horse to make a full recovery from laminitis and resume all the activities it could do previously, including jumping. However, the return to ridden exercise must be slow and steady, and should only take place once your veterinarian assesses that it is safe to do so. This could be weeks or even months, depending on the lameness levels of your horse.

Conclusion

The founder can be a scary thing and can cause a horse a great amount of pain.  But, it can be prevented and treated. Horse people need to be able to recognize the signs of the founder and to know the causes of the founder so that they can be dealt with properly.

If this article helped you better understand the founder and its causes, please share it! And, share with us your experiences dealing with preventing and treating founder!


FAQs

How do you tell if a horse has foundered in the past?

Besides looking at the hoof for the symptoms, it is also important to look at the overall health of the horse. The most common sign of a "foundered" horse is a weak, staggering gait.
The horse may be lame, may have a sore that looks like a "bruised foot", may show lameness in other parts of the body, or may show signs of being overworked. A horse with any of these problems should not be ridden or driven until the condition is treated.
When a horse is foundered, it is more likely to stumble and fall if a horse is in a high stepping gait, such as a trot or canter. A horse that is foundered will often show a higher than normal heart rate and may appear to pant.

What to feed a horse that has foundered?

Horses that have foundered should be fed grass hay. They will have to have alfalfa in his ration too as they need the energy and protein to build more muscle. They don't need to eat high-quality grain. Do not feed oats, corn, or molasses. Oats are very high in starch and should be fed sparingly, as they cause a hard coat. Corn causes indigestion. Molasses can cause loose stools.

How long does horse founder last?

Indeed, horse founder is a complex condition and can be difficult to diagnose. The most obvious signs of founder are a horse that has one or both hind legs in a straight line and is unable to bear weight. If you notice any of these signs in your horse, it is important to contact your veterinarian immediately.
To begin with, it’s important to understand what founder is. Founder is the term used to describe a condition of weakened support of the bones inside the hoof. Founder can result from several things such as a genetic defect, disease, nutritional deficiencies, or trauma to the hoof. Horse founder lasts as long as it takes for the damaged parts of the hoof to fully grow out and heal.This process can take up anywhere between 6 and 12 months. 

How do I know if my horse is foundering?

Naturally, you will want to consult your veterinarian for advice. The following are some symptoms that may be indicative of founder: sudden onset of lameness, resistance to walking or moving, feeling a pulse and heat in the foot, shifting weight back and forth between legs, reluctance to bend the leg, laying down more frequently.

How do I stop my horse from foundering?

You can try these tips to avoid grass founder:
Allow the horse to fill up on hay before turning out on grass for a few hours.
Place a grazing muzzle on horses predisposed to foundering to limit their forage intake. Grazing muzzles limit grass intake but allow the horse to exercise throughout the day.
Feed grain in the morning and afternoon to maintain blood glucose levels.
Provide free access to water at all times.
Consider using a feeder stall instead of a turnout stall to allow the horse to move around freely.
Use a water bucket to provide constant access to water.
If the horse is foundering, keep him standing and moving, not lying down.

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