Laminitis (Founder)

Feeding the laminitic horse

What is laminitis?

Laminitis, or ‘founder’ is the painful inflammation of the sensitive laminae of the hoof in horses and more commonly ponies. This inflammation results in disruption of the blood flow to the foot, resulting in separation of the laminae, particularly at the toe. This separation can then lead to rotation and sinking of the pedal bone.

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Laminitis is a complex disease and there is no quick fix. Long term management is time consuming and often frustrating for owners. However, a correct diet can make it a whole lot easier.

The key is low sugar.

One of the major causes of laminitis is high blood insulin caused by sugar (particularly fructans) in the diet, such as that contained in actively growing pasture plants. Sugar content in plants varies with seasonal changes including:

  • amount and intensity of sunlight
  • weather conditions
  • location
  • time of day
  • moisture content
  • soil minerals and nitrogen

Grasses make sugar during the daylight hours through a process called photosynthesis (Carbon dioxide + water + sunlight). During the night the plants use these sugars to grow. By the early morning the sugar levels are at their lowest usually, and therefore this is the safest time to graze ‘at risk’ horses/ponies. However, it is important to understand that plants will not grow during extreme cold or drought and so for example, if it has been a frosty night the sugar content of the plants will still be very high in the early morning. Make an assessment of your pasture and the overnight conditions before turning the horses out to graze.

Weeds can also be high in sugar during their growth phase up to seeding. They often hang around and thrive during times of drought or during hostile conditions that are unfavourable for native grasses or pasture plants. Weeds can be controlled via spot spraying or by avoiding overgrazing of pasture grasses. It is especially important to control flatweed and dandelions as these can be addictive to grazing horses and pose an addition risk of developing Stringhalt.

Pasture in shaded areas is also of lower sugar content than open areas as these plants receive less sunlight and therefore cannot make as much sugar as those in full sunlight. In addition, native grasses are of lower risk than broad-acre pasture grasses.

Good quality protein is important in hoof tissue repair, and meeting your horses vitamin and mineral requirements is also vital. Lucerne is a good source of protein, and being a legume it generally contains a much lower level of fructans. It is safe to feed up to 25% of the ration in weight to ‘at risk’ horses. To be extra cautious, feed the second or third cut lucerne as these are lower in sugar due to being cut after the bloom stage of growth. In addition, you can “shake” the leaves from the lucerne before feeding it to at risk horses, reducing the level of sugar further.


First seek veterinary attention!

It is very important that a veterinarian examines your horse before any treatment plans are set into place. A thorough physical examination will rule in/out any underlying conditions that can contribute to/cause laminitis, and these conditions will need specific treatment other than dietary. Once the cause has been determined a dietary plan can be implemented.


The basics:

  • Most of the diet should be made up of a low sugar forage
    • Avoid ryegrass hay, oaten, wheaten or barley hay AND chaff!
    • If unable to access low sugar hay soak the hay you have available in twice its volume of warm water for at  least 30 minutes (preferably longer) before tipping the water our and rinsing the hay and air drying before feeding
      • soaking lucerne in the same manner is also a good idea for high risk horses/ponies (especially if it is first cut lucerne, which is naturally higher in sugar as it is cut during the growth phase of the plant)
      • Oaten chaff can also be soaked, drained, rinsed and dried
    • Feed hays that are low in sugar such as mature or stemmy tropical grass hays and mature or stemmy lucerne hay
    • A grazing muzzle can be used to reduce the horse’s intake of pasture
    • Graze during the early morning (5am-10am) when pasture sugar levels are lower
  • Exclude all grain, grain by-products and molasses
    • Never feed oats, corn, wheat, rice and barley, millrun, millmix, bran (rice or wheat),   pollard, and any form of steam flaked micronised or extruded grain
    • Read all feed labels carefully before buying as many that claim to be ‘grain-free’ or ‘low GI’ and they contain one or more of the above ingredients
  • Ensure the diet is balanced for vitamins and minerals
    • It is important to meet the laminitic horse’s requirements for protein, amino acids, vitamins and minerals in order to help them recover and to help them resist other disease and infection
      • Soaking hay will reduce the soluble trace-minerals, vitamins and salt so it is a good idea to supplement with a suitable mineral lick block or powder in their feed

Top Tips

  • Place a brick in the feed bucket to slow down the eating process
  • Use a slow feeder hay net
  • Use a grazing muzzle if you cannot confine your horse to an area with no feed
  • If grazing time is allowed in your horses laminitis diet graze at night time when the sugars in the pasture are at the lowest
  • Schedule regular farrier visits (every 4-5 weeks) to make sure the hoof angles are maintained correctly 


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