Laminitis after the drought ????? Or what was really going on ?

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We have had a very challenging 3-4 mths with most of the horses getting sore feet after all the rain. I wanted to share about this because it has been such a HUGE learning curve. Whilst being so happy to not be in drought, the rain brought some big challenges. We have so much grass here now it is unbelievable – more grass than I have ever seen here before.  However for the last few months the horses weren’t able to be out grazing on it because it seemed to be causing nearly all of them to have laminitic symptoms. I had to keep all the horses off the grass for most of the time which meant a huge work load and expense (more work and expense than when we were in severe drought) as they had to be locked up ( individual pens and a group loafing area),  fed 5 times a day during the day, with big individual haynets stuffed to keep them going through the night. If  we put big whole round bales out they were getting too wet and then were  wasted, from storms and heavy rains. There was a LOT  of poo to be picked up and horses hand walked ( 2 at a time) and or Equissaged. I was so glad to have the Equissage machine. It was used so much during this time especially for the horses that were too sore to be hand walked. It was a  a huge work load with 17  horses on the place.  (Not all were mine – but Sue and I were managing that many !!!! )

I naievely assumed that it was due to sugars/starches  in the grasses, and this seemed to be confirmed by many people I talked to, including vets,  saying yes there is a lot of laminitis around this season, you’ve just got to keep them off the grass. It certainly was an unbelievable season,  it seemed plants were trying to do three seasons growth in one and many plants were acting as if they were in spring even though we were at the end of summer and going into autumn.  In despair, when after months of management  it felt like things weren’t improving and we where never going to get out of this situation I spoke with Carol Layton who advised to get blood tests done – to check the cause of the laminitis and see if the horses were actually Insulin Resistant ( IR). Carol said that horses could only be affected by sugars and starches  in the grasses if they were IR.  I got the worst of the horses tested  and the  two who looked the most likely to be considered IR due to  being really good doers, putting on weight easily and having slightly cresty necks. Most of my herd did not fit the picture of the typical IR horse at all.  None of the horses that I got tested were scored as insulin resistant – they were actually extremely low on the spectrum !!!!!!! So it seemed it wasn’t the sugars and starches in the grasses that was causing the laminitis symptoms.

Getting the blood tests done was another learning curve in itself. The insulin tests may not have been 100% accurate because the horses were fasted for 4 hrs – during the day. During the day the horses were fed 3.5 – 4 hourly – and when the vet took the blood the horses were due for their feed. The vet had been here for about 2.5 – 3 hrs looking at other horses and doing x- rays and had seen the horses were all in yards and she had been here on several occasions previously and was aware that the horses were locked up for periods of time because we were keeping them off the grass. However, there was no mention that if the horses were fasted the tests might not be accurate !!!!

The day I got the blood test results back  I just let all the horses out on the grass for  the night. It was such a relief. We couldn’t have kept up this high maintenance management much longer – it was mentally, emotionally and physically taking its toll and I had no time or energy for anything else. I was just checking digital pulses and observing their soundness and they all seemed to be fine. I found out a couple of weeks later that fasted horses might have inaccurate results. Since the horses were doing fine and I was out of funds, I didn’t retest them and I thought that because they scored so extremely low on the IR scale and nothing in their history or how they looked actually seemed that they would be IR,  that they still most likely would have been under the level that would be regarded as insulin resistant.

I kept researching.  So if it wasn’t sugar and starch that was the problem, what was going on ? Finally I got some answers from Dr Kellon, a vet in the USA. She said that – even though there is no definite scientific proof at this stage, she believed there  was a very high chance the nitrates in the grasses coming out of drought could be the problem that was causing the foot issues and also that mycotoxins in the grasses could possibly also be affecting their feet. I was aware of the mineral imbalances  that can come  about after drought and in particular the nitrates and also of mycotoxins. I thought these were separate issues along side with the laminitis from sugar and starch. I had no idea that these might cause laminitis type symptoms themselves.  I had already put the horses on a toxin binder for the mycotoxins, because I saw signs that this might be a problem, but didn’t really know what to do about the nitrates. If I had of known these things were the crux of the problems with the feet I could have changed my management  plan and saved a lot of time and money.

I also had a few of the horses front feet x-rayed. One horse in particular had extremely thin soles so the laminitis in this case ( she was one of the ones I did the IR test on ) was likely due to concussion ( road founder) – even though she was only walking around the paddocks. She was definitely was  not being worked hard on hard ground. Again it seemed that sugars and starches  in the grasses were not the cause of her laminitis and she needed to be remedied with boots and pads or shoes.

Also the wet conditions made the horses susceptible to abscessing and infection in the feet – even though none of them presented with the typical  hoof abscess symptoms – eg. being extremely sore on one foot.  A lot of the time they basically just looked equally tender on both front feet. So it was very difficult to know when I was experimenting with trying them with more grazing time whether it was the grasses or  hoof abscesses that were making them appear worse some times and hoof abscesses are often due to laminitis making it all very confusing.

The general advice from Dr. Kellon is that when managing horses coming out of drought (but my thoughts would extend to any time there is high humidity and conditions right for myotoxins to thrive) would be to put them on a toxin binder. For the nitrate problem, if the horses are fed at least 50% 0f their fibre ration with hay which is known not to be high in nitrates, then this should alleviate the issue of the nitrate imbalance in the grasses until the minerals come back into more balance. I was also told by a pasture expert that “cat heads” and “pig weed” soak up the nitrates and therefore help the other plants come back into balance as well as break up soil compaction – so a positive aspect to having weeds in your paddocks. I had some hay cut from the paddocks at the time all this was happening – so I have sent it off to be mineral tested and will have an idea then of what the mineral balance was at the time all this was happening and I specifically asked for a test on nitrates.

All of this makes me wonder just how many other horses are assumed to be laminitic due to sugars and starches in grasses when in fact there are other causes which would need very different management strategies. It has been a big and costly learning curve. Costly in both time and money which is why I  felt it was important to share this.

The good news is that all of the horses can now be out on the grass all the time, except the ponies who we are still managing and who most likely are insulin resistant (IR). I didn’t get them tested just to save costs – so for now I am just assuming that they are IR because they fit the typical picture of IR horses and have had a history of laminitis in the past.

I felt this might be very useful information for others which is why I have taken the time to share it here. You can find out more information and probably get the most accurate and up to date information about laminitis, since Dr. Kellon specializes in this  area, on her website and in her group ECIR (Equine Cushings and Insulin Resistance). There is loads of information there and the group is a great place to ask questions. Carol Layton (Balanced Equine) is also very knowledgeable in this area. If I had known all this I could have managed things very differently and saved a lot of time, money and stress. So I do hope this is helpful to others.

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