by Linda Chamberlain
I’m telling you this with a great sense of shame. A few weeks ago my horse became lame on all four feet – she was struck down with laminitis, a condition that can kill.
It’s preventable which explains my feelings of remorse but I’m sharing Sophie’s story because her recovery was speedy and unconventional.
I had some help and advice from some amazing professionals and thanks to them my mare was spared the traditional ‘cure’ for laminitis – namely metal shoes, a daily dose of anti-inflammatory Bute and confinement in a stable for weeks, possibly months with the prospect of a very uncertain outcome. Such treatment was given to a friend’s horse recently and the thought horrified me. I didn’t want it to be Sophie’s fate but in view of the seriousness of her lameness I needed some help.
Sophie is a chestnut thoroughbred who has been barefoot all her life. She is as fit as a greyhound, looks just as lean and is kept in a small herd on a grass track system with no stabling – this means she has minimal grass, topped up with hay, and moves an awful lot. The horsey readers among you will be asking how on earth such a horse could get lami. I rode her one Sunday, a few days later my three horses broke down some electric fencing and spent hours partying on the lush grass that I was saving for winter when the sugar content is lower.
Early next morning I found the guilty threesome up to their knees in green stuff but Sophie was barely able to walk.
She followed the others onto the yard and was so crippled that I was amazed there were no signs of injury; no evidence of attack from a wild animal. Her feet were hot and her digital pulses were raised so slowly realisation and fear sank in. Laminitis?
It’s an inflammation that can cause the hoof wall to separate from the internal structures. It is extremely painful for the horse but there was little visible evidence of the problem from an examination of Sophie’s bare hooves which were in good shape and regularly trimmed. It’s a condition that is more commonly associated with fat, little ponies who have been allowed too much rich grass. Such a high-sugar diet produces an overload of toxins which play havoc with the feet.
I could see months of TLC ahead of me. Sophie had only come to me in February; we had been having so much fun…getting on so well. And now there was the very real threat that she wouldn’t get better.
Previous experience with lami meant I knew enough to keep her off all grass and substitute with hay. She was shut onto our massive yard and field shelter with one other horse who couldn’t boss her around. The field shelter had the benefit of rubber mats to give her some comfort and they had plenty of room to move about.
I contacted my fellow admins on the Barefoot Horse Owners Group, warning them that I might be away from my desk for a while and explaining why. I hadn’t been seeking help but it was lovely to get some.
Helen Jacks-Hewitt, a McTimoney Animal Practitioner, reminded me that even lean horses can get lami – some can be grass intolerant and Sophie’s symptoms sounded similar.
Georgie Harrison, barefoot trimmer, warned – get her off all the green stuff. It was already done.
Debbie Carley, who runs Thunderbrook Feeds, said – Probably toxin overload in gut from flush of bad bacteria feeding off the sudden excess of richer grass. Try Equicarb to absorb the toxins then Gut Restore to help settle the guts back down. Keep on hay and no grass. Equicarb and Gut Restore! I had them in my store cupboard. Brilliant.
Nick Hill, natural hoof care practitioner, said two words – contact Ralitsa.
Ralitsa Grancharova is an online holistic vet from Bulgaria who I had written about in an earlier blog. There’s a link in the side column under popular blogs. I knew her views on the box rest/shoes scenario and knew she might have an alternative answer that wouldn’t go against the roaming-free-on-their-own-feet lifestyle my horses were used to. I got in touch. I sent her Sophie’s history, her symptoms, photos of hooves and a short film. Her diagnosis was laminitis.
After 2 weeks of following her advice (weeks! not months) Sophie was walking soundly on the rubber matting in the field shelter and was pretty comfortable on the unforgiving, stony yard. She was happy enough for us to keep up with regular hoof trims. I couldn’t believe it. After another week it was almost impossible to see any lameness beyond the occasional short stride. She was back on part of their track which had been carefully mashed and eaten down, trotting and dancing with her friends like a proper thoroughbred.
The treatment was simple. No grass. No Bute. No confinement.
Keep her moving – but only by her own choice. Let her eat hay but give no sugary treats or grain feeds. Hose her feet with cold water, wrap her hooves or put on hoof boots in the early, painful stages. Feed activated charcoal to absorb the toxins in the gut. I used Equicarb from Thunderbrooks. After 3 weeks I was asking Ralitsa whether I should start walking Sophie in hand or if she could go back on the grass track. It was too soon for any grass and walking should only be if she’s comfortable. Stop if it isn’t.
Sophie is nearly better. I know her hooves have been weakened and I know to be careful. The electric fencing is being replaced by permanent fencing and my fingers are crossed that we don’t have too much rain while they are confined to a small turnout area. Soon we will be going for walks in hand on ground that isn’t going to cause her discomfort.
Ralitsa’s treatment plan is miles away from the conventional one but she can explain better than I.
‘In my experience conventional treatment of laminitis in horses (box rest and shoes) does not bring the desired recovery as fast as we could hope for. During the time I practised in Germany, laminitic horses were treated in exactly the same way – they were put on box rest, given Bute and shod. These horses would spend up to 3 months in the clinic under these conditions. They would get better for a short while and would then get worse. The vicious cycle would continue until the owner decided to have the horse put down or until the animal was well enough to go home. Not long after some of these horses would return to the clinic with another bout of laminitis. I became convinced that laminitis was incurable. These veterinary professionals were doing everything in their power and they still could only save a few horses from the devastating disease. And the more I looked into the matter myself, the more I was certain that there was no other way and the treatment for laminitis was not yet discovered.
‘But this all changed. When I organised one of Nick Hill’s visits to Bulgaria (Nick Hill is a distinguished natural horse care practitioner, who helps horses from all over the world recover from laminitis), he made me see things differently. It was so easy, I wondered why I hadn’t seen it myself. One of the most common causes for laminitis is carbohydrate overload. I won’t go into the specifics of how laminitis actually develops, as there is enough information on the matter available.
‘But as any veterinary surgeon would agree, eliminating the cause for the disease is the best way to treat it. So does that work for laminitis? If the cause is indeed the most common one – carbohydrate overload (through grass, grains, fruit, molasses and others), a change in diet is essential. Allow the horse to only eat hay. Supply water and salt lick. Anything else could continue to bring the digestive tract out of equilibrium which is why unless you are certain the particular supplement you want to feed is carbohydrate free (or unflavoured), you should not include it in the horse’s diet at this stage.
‘If your horse is shod, take the shoes off. If you are wondering whether to have your horse shod or not because of acute laminitis, then there is a few things you need to consider. Laminitis is the inflammation of the sensitive laminae that make up the connection between the hoof wall and the hoof’s internal structures. Allowing the hoof to function physiologically (barefoot) allows the blood supply to reach the inflamed laminae.
‘Shoes don’t allow the hoof to function physiologically. They restrict blood supply to the hoof, as they do not allow for physiological movement of the soft tissues inside the hoof capsule. As with any inflamed tissue, blood supply is essential to healing.
‘This is another reason why movement is recommended for treating laminitis. Movement stimulates blood supply to the hoof. But this is not the only reason why I would recommend it for recovering from laminitis. Digestion in horses is connected to movement. One of the causes for colic in horses is lack of movement and turn out. As laminitis is also so deeply entwined with the digestive tract, it makes even more sense to allow a laminitic horse to move. Of course movement under the pain killing effect of some drugs most often used in the treatment of laminitis is not recommended. But after the initial stages of laminitis the horse should be allowed to recover out of the stable. With the appropriate dietary changes in place, most horses get well enough to walk on their own and at this stage the need for NSAIDs should be carefully weighed.
‘The recovery period for laminitis is different and depends on the individual horse. But in my experience the horses get better much quicker when they are on a hay-only diet (without supplements or treats) and are allowed to move freely. Using boots instead of shoes allows the hooves to function physiologically and could also help alleviate the pain.’
Thanks to everyone who follows and shares this blog – it goes around the world! And keep in touch by clicking the follow button or leave me some feed back. If you’ve had a brush with laminitis or a story to tell, I’d love to hear from you…
Sophie’s laminitis has flared up again (November) – I might have introduced a bit of feed too early. Will keep you updated once I have a clearer picture.
FURTHER UPDATE – I have written other posts about our progress but need to put something here too. Yes, I was advised to cut out all feed once again but I was being thwarted by the weather. The winter of 2015/16 was extremely wet and the horses were unable to go on any of the fields or tracks. Sophie couldn’t cope with the grass and the mud eventually became too much for the others. For months they were confined to the yard and a short, stony track towards the house. It’s common for laminitics to abscess after an episode and Sophie did so on all four feet in January 2016. The horses coped with the situation but my chestnut TB didn’t behave calmly enough to go for walks in hand. We had to wait – but then I came up with a plan! We moved them to another home and set up a massive track system in some woods with almost zero grass. Another year on and my horses are roaming over varied terrain and about a mile of tracks. Sophie is sound and we are riding again.
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A Barefoot Journey, is my honest and light-hearted account of going barefoot – including the mistakes, the falls, the triumphs and the nightmares! A small-but-perfectly-formed field companion to my novel The First Vet. Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US – paperback for £2.84 and Kindle for 99p. The First Vet, historical romance inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark – the man who exposed the harm of shoeing 200 years ago! Paperback price £6.99, Kindle £2.24 –Amazon UK. Amazon US. This book, which has more than 30 five-star reviews and a recommend from the Historical Novel Society, sold out at the prestigious international show at Hickstead! Still available on Amazon though…
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