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What to feed ponies and horses with laminitis?
by Dr Tim Watson BVM&S, PhD, MRCVS
The Equine Veterinary Clinic, Turningshaw Farm, Houston, Renfrewshire, PA6 7BP

Key Facts

• Animals with laminitis should be fed a mixture of alfalfa, straw chop and late-cut hay, which is a low energy, high fibre diet that is rich in essential nutrients for tissue repair.

• Repeated attacks of laminitis can be prevented by reducing obesity and avoiding exposure to pasture-related trigger factors by careful grazing.

• Animals prone to laminitis should be fed high fibre foods in the form of hay, dried grass or alfalfa.

• Sugar-rich concentrates should not be fed and energy supplied by oils instead.

Laminitis is a debilitating condition that arises when blood flow to the laminae, which attach the hoof wall to the pedal bone inside the foot, become disrupted. This results in pain and inflammation, and weakens the attachments so that the pedal bone rotates and, in extreme cases, detaches and sinks through the sole.

Approximately two-thirds of cases of laminitis are associated with grazing pasture. This is believed to trigger the condition in animals predisposed by being obese, having equine metabolic syndrome or suffering from Cushing’s disease. Other causes include mechanical trauma and severe infections.

New cases of laminitis require careful management to stabilise the condition and enable tissues to repair. This will involve medical treatment and special shoeing, as well as dietary changes. Access to grass and sugary feeds must be curtailed.

A diet of mixed alfalfa and straw chop is recommended, with a small amount of late-cut hay. Halley’s Greengold Alfalfa chop, Alfagrass chop and Timothy hay chop are ideal for this purpose, since they are low in sugar, high in fibre and have high levels of protein and other nutrients essential for tissue repair. Halleys AdLib Blox, which contain a mixture 50:50 mix of Alfalfa and Straw, are also ideal for laminitics. Scientific studies have shown that alfalfa can improve horn quality and growth.

Ponies and horses that suffer laminitis are prone to repeated attacks and require special care. Attention has to be paid to lowering risk – by reducing obesity and treating underlying disease - and avoiding pasture-related factors that trigger laminitis.

It has historically been believed that laminitis stems from over-ingestion of lush grass but recent research has shown that that it is the amount of certain sugars rather the amount of grass that leads to laminitis. These sugars - which are termed non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) - disrupt digestion and trigger a cascade of events that results in laminitis.

Normal horses and ponies cope well with even very large amounts of NSC, whereas those that are overweight, suffering equine metabolic syndrome or have Cushing’s disease are extremely exquisitely sensitive to their effects. Access to NSC must, therefore, be limited by careful control of grazing.

Levels of NSC in grass rise rapidly in response to cold temperatures as well as dry spells, and are highest in the afternoon and lowest overnight. For this reason it makes sense to turnout animals prone to laminitis at night and to avoid pasture in frosty or drought-like conditions.

The NSC content of pasture is lower when the grass is short, which can be achieved by mowing or over-stocking a so-called ‘starvation paddock’. Grazing muzzles can also be effective in reducing the amount eaten. Avoid fields from which hay, haylage or silage has been harvested as the grass stems left behind are extremely rich in NSC.

With limited access to grass it is important to provide good quality alternative feeds in the form of hay and other low-sugar, high-fibre foods. Alfalfa is ideal because it is digested slowly but is a rich source of protein and energy, as well as minerals and vitamins.

The amount of NSC in alfalfa products ranges from 9-11% and is lower than that of the majority of other feeds, including hay, which is around 14%, grass (13-29%), concentrate feeds (16-45%), oats (54%), molasses (60%) and barley (63%).

Sugar-rich concentrates should be avoided and, instead, high fibre cubes and unmolassed sugar beet pulp fed, along with corn oil, when more energy is required.


Halley's Feeds, Cassochie, Methven, Perthshire, PH1 3RT
Telephone: 01738 840394
Fax: 01738 840830

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