Founder in Horses. Symptoms and Causes

“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.

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

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

What is Founder in Horses?
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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.- walks 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 founder is overeating on rich foods.  Similar to diabetes in people, 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 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 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 founder 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 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 founder is suspected.

Treating of Founder Horse

There are many ways to treat founder.  Some of them are based off whatever caused the horse to founder, and some are simply based off 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, there is no miracle drug that will cure a horse from the infections that founder brings.  But, there are very clear, non-veterinary methods for helping your horse heal from it to become healthy again!

Preventing Founder

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, founder happens regardless of what precautions are taken, but it never hurts to take preventative measures.

First on the list of founder prevention is the 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.

Conclusion

Founder can be a scary thing and can cause a horse a great amount of pain.  But, it can be prevented and treated. It is important for horse people to be able to recognize the signs of founder and to know the causes of founder, so that it can be dealt with properly.

If this article helped you better understand 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.