Feeding Tips for Horses with Laminitis

Laminitis in short, is the inflammation of soft tissue in the hoof causing damage to or death of the laminar cells, resulting in the loss of the foot’s mechanical integrity.  The severity of damage is unique to each case with the worst damage resulting in founder which is the sinking of the coffin bone.

Overall management and feeding of horses with laminitis requires special care, since factors such as body weight, starch intake, mineral and energy balance, as well as metabolic function can have a profound effect on the fragile environment of the damaged tissue of the hoof.  If you are managing a horse currently being treated for laminitis or one with a history of laminitis, the most important element of overall care is staying connected to your vet and farrier.  When it comes to feeding, here are some nutrition tips to help you along the way.

  • Weight: weight control and regular exercise help any horse physically and mentally, but the laminitic horse in particular.  Excess weight and stagnation add unneeded stress to an already fragile situation. Once the acute phase has passed, regular turn out and exercise provide essential blood flow to the foot, which provides the nutrients for tissue repair.  Activity is also helpful in managing weight.
  • Pasture:  Lush pasture access should be limited by a grazing muzzle for horses prone to laminitis or those currently being treated for it.  If a grazing muzzle is not available, the horse should be limited to access later in the day when plant sugar (fructans) levels in grass are lower, or be kept on a dry lot.
  • Forage: High quality grass hay is the ideal forage for a horse prone to laminitis.
  • Feed: A product specially formulated for metabolic issues or a ration balancer are the best bet to feed your laminitic horse.  Micro nutrients such as vitamins and minerals are essential for tissue repair, so be sure to check that the feed is balanced for these as well as the essential amino acids.   Avoid feeds which provide high levels of starch per meal as these horses tend to be sensitive to increases in blood sugar and insulin.
  • Supplements: Horses with laminitis may benefit from supplemental magnesium and chromium, both of which assist in sensitivity to insulin.
  • Water: Often overlooked as a nutrient, water is one of the best allies in the defense of laminitis in your horse.  Fresh, clean tepid water is a key to overall health as well as circulation of nutrient rich blood.

Following these guidelines for feeding and management, as well as working closely with your veterinarian and farrier should provide you with the tools you need to manage laminitis in your horse.  With extra care and help from the trusted professionals in your life, your horse with laminitis can live a happy, balanced life.

28 Replies to “Feeding Tips for Horses with Laminitis”

  1. my 18 year old Tennessee walker horse kept getting laminitis every winter. This last year it was so bad he could hardly walk at all. Usually when it warmed up he got better. But that was not true this year. Even when warm weather was here he could not walk. My Vet had me put him on low balance pellets and chromium. After a few weeks he got a whole lot better. I can ride him now. They said he had equine metobolic disorder. I am just really happy that he can walk and run again.
    The difference in him with this medicine is unbeliveable. I am anxious to see if he gets laminitis again this winter. I sure hope not. But my Vet sure knew what to do.

    1. Sue,

      I am having the some problem with my welsh pony mare she is not over weight but came down with terrible laminitis this winter, what did you give your horse??

      1. First, restrict access to lush pasture. Use a grazing muzzle if needed. If your pony is an easy keeper or overweight, we recommend Empower Topline Balance or SafeChoice Special Care.

  2. I am curious as to why you suggest grass hay as a forage source for laminic prone horses who tend to have a problem with sugar and starch. Alfalfa hay tends to be the lowest hay when looking at sugar and starch levels.

    As a side note, soaking hay, of any kind over night and draining off the water is a great way to reduce the sugar levels of any hay.

    1. Great question. The horse that is prone to laminitis has a couple of issues. We do not want them to get overweight, and we do not want them to get a metabolic disturbance from either starch overload or fructan overload that will trigger another episode. Alfalfa tends to have significantly higher energy content than most grass hay, and it is fairly easy to get a horse too fat feeding alfalfa.

      While the cool season grass hays will have a higher fructan content than alfalfa, the majority of grass hays that are available do not have a high fructan content and will be lower energy than alfalfa, hence easier to control weight. Optimum recommendation is always to have the actual forage tested. If the grass hay does contain a higher level of fructans, soaking the hay and draining before feeding is relative effective to reduce fructan (soluble carbohydrate) content. If soaking is used as a control method, make sure to drain off the water before feeding the hay (that’s where the sugar is now contained).

      Roy J.

  3. can i feed a horse with laminitis lucerne hay and lucerne chaff?
    is it better to just feed him rodes grass.

    1. Hi Donna,

      Thanks for your questions. I’m not familiar with the Lucerne line of products, so I would suggest you contact the company to determine what the NSC and WSC content of their products are. If they are unable to provide you with an answer, you might have the hay tested at a laboratory such as Equi-Analytical.

      Regarding your other option, the optimum recommendation is always to have the actual forage tested. If the grass hay does contain a higher level of fructans, soaking the hay and draining the water before feeding is relative effective to reduce fructan (soluble carbohydrate) content. If soaking is used as a control method, make sure to drain off the water before feeding the hay (that’s where the sugar is now contained).
      Here are some other helpful blog posts on hay and hay quality.

      Hay Selection
      Judging Hay Quality
      Hay Soaking Tips
      Horses with laminitis do require a bit extra management, so keep close to the situation and remember to work with your farrier and vet for the best information for his situation.

      Best of luck~

      1. Lucerne is alfalfa. Alfalfa is controversial for horses with laminitis, but I am not sure why. It is rich in nutrition, but it is not high in NSCs.

  4. Hi my horse suffered with laminitis 2 years ago and he came back to full soundness, i feed him 2 scoopes of redmills horsecare cubes a day recommended by my vet a haynet at night out most of the day on grass but not lush acre and half i excercise hom regularly between showjumping and flatwork i find his energy levels quit low is there a supplement i can giv to him to giv him more of a spring in his step that wont trigger laminitis i put him on horse first new bludd but doesnt seem to b working

    1. Hello Louise,

      Thank you for finding our blog and for your question. I suspect from the forage product you mentioned, that you are not located in the USA; I likely won’t be able to provide a specific product recommendation based on what’s available to you; however I can share some general nutrition guidelines and the Nutrena feeds we would recommend.

      First I would recommend you double check the feeding directions of the product your vet recommended. It’s important to feed at the manufacturer’s recommended amount so that the micro-nutrients in the feed is available to your horse as it was designed to be.

      The supplement you chose for your working guy should be high in fat for energy needed for his work. It is important that he receive a feed product or supplement that provides him balanced vitamins, minerals and the amino acids (lysine, methionine and threonine) needed for muscle and tissue maintenance and development. Try to limit the amounts of starch and sugars available as his history makes him more sensitive to those nutrients. Check the guaranteed analysis to confirm these important nutrients are present.

      From the Nutrena line up, a horse that is considered underweight but prone to laminitis would be best fed SafeChoice Senior, while an average weight horse would do best with SafeChoice Special Care.

      I hope this helps you in your search. I wish you and your gelding all the best!
      Megan C.

  5. 6 weeks ago we purchases a western pleasure gelding for our daughter. The day we brought him home we had the farrier come out and trim him and remove his shoes because he had already lost one. When the farrier pulled the shoes it was noted he had a seedy toe on his right front foot. When we rode him the day before he was sound, however due to us being very trusting we did not get him vet checked before the purchase. We have rode him 4- 5 times a week since then and had not had any trouble. 3 days ago whe got him trimmed again and increase the degree of his hoof angle as we did the first trimming because he was a little low in the heel. My daughter rode him that day and did not have any trouble. The next day when she was getting ready to ride he was a little sensitive in the foot with the seedy toe. She got off him immediately we hosed his legs down and put him in his stall with thick shavings. I am concerned now if he was acting like this because of the elevation or if there is a deeper underlying problem. This is terrible because my daught really does love this horse and they get along well together. I think the person whom we bought him from was not honest about everything, but in the end it was our fault for being too trusting and not having him vet checked. In the mean time do you have any advise as to what the problem might be, course of treatment, and should we put shoes back on him once he is no longer sensitive.

    1. Hi Kimberly,

      Thanks for reading the blog post and for your question. At this juncture, it is best for you and your horse to contact your veterinarian to work through the diagnosis and best treatment options for your horse. Should your veterinarian diagnose your horse with laminitis, please do consider the advice provided in this post. If the diagnosis is something different, we do offer advice for feeding a wide range of situations and are happy to help.

      All the best,
      Megan C.

      1. Perhaps the toe is not backed up enough. If you are raising the heels, that is putting more pressure on the toe area. If the toe isn’t backed up enough for proper breakover, that is going to cause pain. Think of catching the tip of your fingernail on the edge of a table, over and over. The pressure repeatedly pulls the wall away from the laminae on the interior, similar to your nail being pulled away from the nailbed. In a couple of trims you may be able to see this as bloody bruising in the area as it grows out. A mustang roll does help a lot with this. Does your trimmer use the mustang model for their practice?

  6. Under “pasture” you mention that “the horse should be limited to access later in the day when plant sugar (fructans) levels in grass are lower”. However, recent studies I have read indicate that sugar content is the highest in pastures later in the day. The lowest sugar content is in the morning, up to about 10 a.m.. The sugar content continues to rise through the day, then starts going down again about an hour or so after sunset. Horses with sugar issues would be safest in this case by being turned out only in the morning, or perhaps overnight.

  7. Thank you Becky for addressing the time of day for turning out horses with EMS. That was my first concern when I read the article. My horse was diagnosed last spring with EMS and has been on a dry lot ever since. My hope is to eventually be able to get him back on some pasture. But conflicting information on turnout scares me. I don’t want to have a set back and put my horse or myself what we went through to get him sound again.
    Please Nutrena address this issue again. He is on Equine Balancer and doing great.

  8. We have an old pony she’s about 20 yr old mare who is an escape artist she has escaped from all different stallstyles paddock ect… she’ll eat herself to death! If we let her. So now she has laminitis I feel so sad to see her in so much pain but don’t want to give too much pain relief or she’ll think she’s ok and hurt herself so my question is what can we do to help her hoofs heal so her coffin bone does not rotate

    1. I am sorry to hear that your 20 year old pony mare escape artist has developed laminitis. I would recommend that you have your veterinarian and farrier involved as soon as possible to help reduce the risk of damage to the integrity of the hoof. The good news is that ponies generally do not suffer coffin bone rotation as quickly and severely as horses, the bad news is that the damage can occur fairly rapidly under some circumstances.

      From a nutritional standpoint, goal will be to control non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) content in the diet while providing adequate essential amino acids, trace minerals and vitamins. I would recommend feeding a low NSC forage or (soaking the forage to remove some of the soluble carbohydrates per directions provided by Dr. Krishona Martinson of the University of Minnesota in some of our articles) and using a limited feeding rate of an appropriate forage balance product to provide the essential amino acids and trace minerals for the hoof. It is important to avoid letting your escape artist carry too much body weight as well (Easier said than done!)

      -Roy J.

  9. I have a 15 yr old Tenn Walking horse gelding who foundered 6 yrs ago. He is completely sound if I always keep shoes on his front – which of course, I always do – however; I board him at a wonderful stable, but we constantly argue about how much weight he should carry. Having had horses all my life, I realize that fat is not his friend, but not only can I feel his ribs, but I can count them, and his hip bones are too prominent. He has no natural pasture (we are in coastal Georgia) and I would rate the hay being fed as good quality. It’s what they call coastal forage. He is also fed one flake of peanut hay each day. HOW MUCH SHOULD I FEED OF BALANCING PELLETS? More than a pound each feeding? He is 15’1″, and is pretty much on maintenance since his Momma has had back surgery. Thanks so much, one vet says keep him skinny, and another says he does not have to be skinny the rest of his life — just needs correct, balanced diet. I am trying to do that, but he needs more of something. Right now, he gets less than a half scoop of balancing pellets, twice each day, plus his hay.

    1. Hello Donna, Thank you for contacting us. You are correct in that fat is not his friend, but you should still keep him at a healthy body condition score of 5 – ie. feel but not see the ribs!

      If your balancing pellets are a ration balancer, they are typically designed to be fed at a rate of 1.5 – 2.5 lbs per day, so you’ll want to weigh what your barn’s scoop holds and ensure he is falling within that amount. With ration balancers, you don’t want to go above the recommended amount, as you can start to get in to toxicity situations due to the high concentration of vitamins and minerals.

      If he needs more than 2.5 lbs per day (or whatever the directions for his particular feed indicates), then you’d want to bump up to something like a SafeChoice Special Care – a little higher feeding rate and a few more calories per pound, to get him to condition. That product has a 3 – 6 lbs per day feeding rate for his size.

      I hope this is helpful – if you have further questions, please let us know! Thanks ~ Gina T.

  10. I have a pony mare 27 years old that is laminitic. She has a very hard time keeping weight on. What can we safely feed her?

  11. I am frustrated with a pre-existing foundered welsh arab qtr type 14.2 hd., 850 lb gelding we rescued 5 yrs ago. He had rotated 8 months prior to placing him with us with out knowing before we got him. Always has worn front good break shoes and been doing well. However it seems every winter he is getting worse with his laminitis issues. We pull the shoes in the winter months and often substitute easy boots which seem to give him relief. Along with feeding him smart pak metabolic vitamins, and MVP DCY with yucca, shangra, turmeric, willow bark, msn and essential laminitis vitamins to help aid his joints and pain. He is 28 now and his body tone has taken a tremendous weight loss due to no back teeth. He is grained 2.5 to 3 lbs daily in 4 increments of the day since he has a hard time plating most hay. If I put him on higher quality hay with alfalfa he will have a spout of laminitis and be slightly sore, he has a tendously to drink water fast and furious swell. I try to monitor him so he drinks slowly in the morning when he is let out for daily paddock exercise. I’ve had to wrap his legs and keep his hoofs warm with insulated thermal boots with out MN 20 plus below windshield weather. It seems to comfort him and eliminate spouts. He does not appear to be in tremendous pain though I am sure he has days. He is currently getting Nutrenea Senior low starch feed and it does not seem to be enough to help him maintain his weight. I don’t want to over grain him since it will cause laminitis spouts but he has lost to much weight. I am considering switching my feed to Forma Feed Technics for senior horses it is also a good source of SENIOR pellets which can be feed in mash by wetting. His disposition is good and non larthargic, however he is not maintaining weight he needs and should have. Help!

    1. Hi N. Lamping,
      You have posed some interesting questions. You are clearly working very hard to do the right thing for the gelding you rescued 5 years ago who is now 28. You may be dealing with a variety of issues. I will see if I can provide some thoughts for you to consider:
      Body condition score is primarily a matter of digestible energy (DE) intake for maintenance, growth, reproduction and work, including staying warm. As your horse is at maintenance, not too worried about growth, reproduction or work! Cold weather does increase the energy requirement for maintenance. We would expect an 850 pound horse to be consuming about 2% of bodyweight or about 17 pounds per day of combined forage and feed. Because you want low starch along with added fat and highly digestible fiber, Nutrena SafeChoice Senior is a good option and would need to be fed at a higher daily feeding rate than you describe in the note below. As your horse has dental issues, not uncommon for 28, you could indeed feed it as a mash. You could also use a pelleted forage product and make a mash of that to go along with the Senior Feed. You may also want to consider going to a higher fat Senior Feed such as ProForce Senior to increase the DE intake at the same feeding rate. Per the Nutrient Requirements of Horses, 6th Edition, each degree below about 40 degrees F increases DE requirement 1.375%, which is why it is easy for horses to lose weight in cold weather. If a horse needs to gain weight, it takes about 2.5-3.5 pounds of feed per pound of gain above maintenance. As your horse has an issue with laminitis, you may not want to go above body condition score of 4.5-5.0.

      Muscle mass loss is primarily related to essential amino acid intake. If you increase the Senior Horse Feed intake, you should also see an improvement in muscle mass. If you do not see the increase in muscle mass over time, you may want to look at a diet balance product as well.

      As you are well aware, all feed changes need to be gradual, so you would be gradually increasing the total amount fed over at 10 days to 2 weeks, a little longer period than some recommendations due to risk of aggravating laminitis.
      The water intake issue is also an interesting question. I am assuming you have a source of at least slightly warmed water above 40 degrees. I would want to make certain that your horse is getting enough total water. Rapid drinking suggests the he may not be getting the total amount he needs, so he is drinking rapidly. Another issue could be that he has some dental pain, so he wants to drink rapidly and minimize time of discomfort. If he is drinking excess water and producing excess urine, this can also be one indication of Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID or Equine Cushing’s Syndrome). He should be allowed to drink moderate quantities at intervals until he is no longer thirsty, then should be able to have fresh clean 40+ degree water free choice. Cold water also increases DE requirement as the horse has to warm the water from intake temperature to body temperature every time he drinks. I trust your veterinarian has assessed for PPID or other disease conditions.

      Best wishes as you continue to take care of your old friend!

      Roy J.

  12. I have a 20 year old Shetland pony that is prone to foundering. While he was lame this summer he halfways went off of feed, was still eating but started losing weight. I live where the winters can be pretty harsh and need to get some weight back on him. Suggestions on a feed or supplement for him would be greatly appreciated.
    Note: Right now he is getting grass hay with a little bit of alfalfa mixed in.

    1. Hello Nicole, Thanks for the question. Without knowing what you’ve tried in terms of feeding programs, we’d suggest the following:
      1. Start with SafeChoice Senior, to get the nutrients and calories he needs in a highly palatable, controlled starch formula
      2. If needed, try adding Empower Boost, our high fat rice bran supplement, to his diet – it’ll provide more calories per pound than a regular feed, which can help him gain weight faster.

      We’d also suggest checking with your veterinarian, to check for any other underlying issues that may be causing him to go off feed, such as ulcers.
      Best of luck to you!

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