by Dr Catherine Dunnett Nutritionist

With the promise of warmer weather on the way our paddocks should start to look greener with the flush of spring grass. However, for horses or ponies that have a tendency to be overweight, or are prone to laminitis, the advent of lush grazing is a headache.

Laminitis is not caused by excess protein in the diet

Contrary to popular belief, laminitis is not caused by excess protein in the diet and is not confined to fat ponies on rich grazing. Laminitis can effect any type of horse or pony including show horses, stallions and even competition horses and ponies

. Existing research suggests that the starch and water-soluble carbohydrate or 'sugar' portion of the diet is implicated in the development of laminitis. Intake of large quantities of these carbohydrates in a short time means that their digestion in the small intestine is incomplete. This results in 'dumping' of substantial quantities of carbohydrate in the hind-gut, where it is fermented rapidly causing a build up of acids. The balance of bacteria in the hind-gut is disrupted by this change in acidity and a laminitis attack can occur as a result

Left: This hoof shows the rings typically left by a case of laminitis.
Right: A severe case of laminitis

Grass Sugars

Grass fructans are particular types of sugar, which are implicated in the development of laminitis in grazed animals. Unfortunately, the fructan content of grass changes dramatically from day to day and even within a single day.The fructan concentration in grass is affected by the amount produced in response to sunlight and the amount used for respiration and growth.
Light, temperature, water availability and the species of grass are all factors, which will effect both the production rate and use of fructan by the grass. Essentially, this makes the key question of when to graze horses or ponies that are susceptible to laminitis a difficult one to answer currently.

Feeding Dilemmas

Robert Eustace of the Laminitis Clinic recommends turning vulnerable horses or ponies out on limited grazing or 'starvation' paddocks. This ensures that they will not be able to consume large quantities of 'grass sugar' in a short period of time. However, it is not just access to grazing which needs to be considered. Over feeding of cereals, which are rich in starch, can also cause a problem in susceptible animals.

Alfalfa growing
Alfalfa is an ideal feed in this situation as it is low in both 'sugar' and starch and has an energy or 'calorie' content equivalent to coarse mixes and cubes.

Oil is also a relatively 'safe' source of energy for horses or ponies prone to laminitis. Careful feeding can achieve even 'show condition' without the need to feed cereal containing coarse mixes or cubes and as the old saying goes, 'prevention is better than cure'.

An attack of Laminitis should never be considered as a minor problem. The damage caused is often irreparable, and in some instances the condition can be fatal. Every attack of laminitis should be regarded as an emergency and your veterinarian consulted.

My horse/pony has laminitis what now?

As soon as laminitis is suspected the cause must be removed instantly and veterinary attention sought. Stable the horse on clean soft bedding such as shavings.

· Box rest remember that even with mild cases of laminitis your vet will probably recommend box rest to prevent further damage to the laminae.

Your vet may recommend a bran mash for the first 24 hours to help to flush toxins out of the system.

To help re-establish the good hind gut bacteria try using a live yeast culture e.g. Yea-Sacc or a probiotic such as Dengies New XP Triple Action

You should re-asses your horse or ponys diet and ensure that you are feeding a high fibre / low starch / sugar regime

Although the incidence of laminitis is higher in overweight animals, it is a popular misconception that a horse or pony prone to laminitis needs to be starved. If weight loss is necessary then it must be done gradually as rapid weight loss can cause more problems than it solves

The Laminitis Trust

Look out for feeds approved by The Laminitis Trust. The Laminitis Trust is a newly formed charity that provides New Hope and seeks to fund research into the causes of laminitis. The Laminitis Trust has awarded certain feeds a Seal of Approval. These feeds have been approved for the healthy maintenance of horses and ponies prone to laminitis. Dengie Hi-Fi Lite, an alfalfa and oat straw mix with a high fibre and low sugar content, has been approved by The Laminitis Trust.

Top tips for avoiding laminitis

  • Restrict grazing, particularly in Spring and Autumn using a muzzle/bare paddock/strip grazing.
  • Do not starve feed a minimum of 1.5% of your horses bodyweight as roughage.
  • For show horses requiring extra condition consider using a high fibre / low sugar & starch feed rather than an extra scoop of coarse mix / cubes.

For a free laminitis leaflet or feeding advice please contact us at

For further information regarding Robert Eustaces book on laminitis or for any further information on laminitis prevention and treatment please contact

The Laminitis Trust:

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Updated: October 2005.