September 28, 2021
Fall brings out the spice in our lattes, our horses, and the pasture grasses. We know that spring brings fast-growing fresh grass filled with starches and sugars, increasing the risk of colic and laminitis in some horses. However, those risks also increase with cooler weather and can be more dangerous in the fall. But don't panic - there are lots of preventative measures you can take for your horse.
How Does Your Horse's Food Influence Colic and Laminitis?
Your horse's food travels through his stomach and small intestine pretty quickly. Then the food enters the hindgut, where microbes help with the digestion process. When horses eat lots of sugars and starches in a small amount of time, these microbes can play a part in the risk of colic and laminitis.
Let's look at the example of the horse that breaks into a feed bin and gorges himself on grain. That grain meal zips through the stomach and small intestine, where only a tiny portion of the sugars and starches break down before reaching the microbes in the hindgut.
Some microbes feast on those sugars and starches, releasing microbe "poop" as part of their digestive process. The sheer volume of this substance changes the pH of the hindgut, and the other fiber-loving microbes may not survive the change in pH.
All of this chaos creates gas - which can cause colic. Large pockets of gas are uncomfortable at best and may trigger displacement of parts of the hindgut. The death of microbes also produces endotoxins that seep into the bloodstream, developing into laminitis, sometimes several days after the fact.
Let's Factor in Pasture and High Starch Diets
The mechanism is the same for some horses on pasture. Can grass have the same effect as a horse gorging on grain? For some horses, yes, especially in spring and fall.
The main goal of grass is to grow, go to seed, and start the cycle again. The fuel for pasture grass is sugars and starches, and grass will hoard them in times of growth and stress. Spring grass needs to grow quickly and densely to seed. It's loaded with delicious sugars to make this happen. At this point in the year, most horses are not acclimated to such rich food and may require gradually increasing turnout time and muzzles.
In the fall, grass needs to store up sugars to survive the winter. Also, decreasing temperatures will stress pastures and spike sugars in the mornings after a chilly overnight. Therefore, fall can be just as risky as spring as the changing weather stresses the pasture.
Metabolic Risk Factors for Laminitis
Grass and grains aside, some horses may also have metabolic issues that increase their risk of laminitis. Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID), formerly called Cushing's disease, begins in the pituitary gland of your horse's brain. This gland produces too much adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which in turn stimulates more cortisol. Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, influences glucose and insulin. This results in insulin dysregulation, and thus a higher risk of laminitis.
In horses with Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), insulin resistance is one component. As the horse consumes sugars, it needs more and more insulin to manage those sugars, as the horse is resistant to insulin's effects. Thus, insulin dysregulation is present here too. Another sign of EMS is past instances of laminitis, and there is usually a component of obesity.
Regular bloodwork and veterinary care can detect these metabolic disorders long before your horse shows signs of disease. Early detection and diligent horsemanship can allow your horse to stay healthy and keep the chances of laminitis at bay.
Your Horse's Metabolic Changes in The Fall
Here's where things get interesting for horses. In the fall, all horses will experience a natural rise in ACTH values. This upward swing happens even without PPID. For horses with PPID, their medication dosage may need to change to manage this upward trend.
Some horses do not have clinical PPID, but the rising ACTH in the fall may warrant medications for the season.
Horses also tend to gain weight in the fall to prepare for winter. Weight gain affects joints, thermoregulation, and increases the chance of EMS. With that, an overweight horse runs a greater risk of insulin resistance and laminitis.
Compounded Risk Factors in The Fall and How to Manage Them
The naturally rising ACTH levels and the stressed-out grasses work together to make at-risk horses more susceptible to laminitis in the fall. You and your vet can map out a plan to keep your horse safe. This includes some follow-up bloodwork to check metabolic status, a possible change to any medications, and supportive lifestyle changes.
Pasture grazing can be made safer with muzzles.
Grazing muzzles allow your horse to do horse things in the field, interact with buddies, and move around. His grass intake slows, limiting how much of the delicious sugary pasture hits his belly. The amount of grass eaten also decreases, helping to keep a horse at a healthy weight. Muzzles are also fantastic to use in the spring as horses get used to the fresh grass coming in.
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There are also supplements available to support your horse's hoof and gut health.
Probiotics are live bacteria that may help balance your horse's digestive tract, especially during times of stress, antibiotic use, or possible laminitis event. Prebiotics are ingredients that serve as fuel and nutrition for the microbes that already exist in your horse's gut.
Hoof supplements often contain biotin, vitamins, and minerals to promote healthy hoof growth. Although these won't prevent laminitis, newer types of hoof supplements support cellular regeneration after laminitis.
Keep tabs on your horse's health by checking vital signs.
Daily checks of your horse's temperature, pulse, and respiration tell you how your horse's body is feeling. Deviations from the normal indicate something could be going on. For example, an elevated pulse often signals pain, and fever is your heads-up to an infection or disease.
Include checking your horse's digital pulses, too. This usually faint pulse around the fetlock may get more substantial when there is damage inside the hoof.
Signs of Laminitis and First Aid
The textbook image of a horse rocking back on his hocks due to laminitis in the front hooves only appears in 25% of cases. Most horses show us their hooves are painful in other ways.
Early signs of laminitis include shorter strides, hesitancy while walking on hard surfaces, difficulty turning, and colic-like symptoms. In addition, you may find stronger digital pulses, hot hooves, and increased heart and respiratory rates. Some horses may shift their weight from leg to leg more while standing. Others will shift their weight less than they usually would. You may also get the feeling that your horse is just "off."
Your first call should always be to your vet if you suspect anything hoof-related. Abscesses, bruises, and other hoof injuries look a lot like laminitis, and you want a treatment plan and x-rays as soon as possible.
Keep your horse on soft ground, don't ask him to move, and make sure your horse can see other horses and isn't too stressed. Your vet may have you remove his food, start icing his hooves and legs, or give some supplements or pain medications. Dispensing pain medications without first talking to your vet may interfere with a diagnosis and delay treatment. Incidentally, this is an excellent protocol to follow if you suspect colic, too.
While this may seem overwhelming and daunting, fall is a time to be more vigilant. However, most horses are not at a high risk of illness in the fall, and your vet is the best source of information about your horse's health and laminitis risk. With that known, you can better manage their grazing and diet to keep them happy and healthy in the cooler weather.
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