Welcome to our monthly feature, “Ask a Farrier,” a Q and A with farrier Karen McMann. Karen has been a full-time farrier for 17 years. She graduated in 2002 from the Canadian School of Horseshoeing, where she studied under Pat Cullen. She serves on the Advisory Board of Equi-Health Canada and Equi-First Aid USA as a Farrier/Hoof Health Support specialist. She lives and works outside of Okotoks, Alberta.
This month’s question is:
Can Founder Be Fixed?
There’s nothing worse than going out to catch a horse in your pasture and they’re dead lame, trying to stand as comfortably as they can, with their front feet stretched out in front of them so there’s no pressure on their toes. What changed? What did they get into this time?
For those of you who don’t really know what founder is, think of it like diabetes in humans. Too much sugar will cause a flare up. In horses, that means the laminae (the connective tissue that holds everything in the foot together) will swell up. This cuts off the blood supply to that connective tissue, causing the tissue to die off and pull away from the coffin bone. That causes the front of the bone to tilt down, push against and potentially break through the sole between the point of the frog and the front of the hoof wall.
When the coffin bone rotates down, there will be a noticeable bulge in the sole where it’s supposed to be concave and the growth/stress rings that form naturally around the outside of the hoof wall will not be straight around. They drop down drastically at the heels because they’re growing faster. Blood flow to the swollen toe is restricted, so it just pulls apart and stretches forward more. The heels are healthier and will continue to grow as normal. Another sign of founder is the horse’s neck – it will be hard and look swollen.
What’s the Treatment for Founder?
A vet will want to take X-rays and probably prescribe bute for the pain and inflammation. A farrier will need to see the X-rays so they know how far to trim the toes back. The theory behind trimming the toes right back, exposing the (sometimes, bloody and pus-filled) laminae, is to relieve the pressure (similar to popping your blister). This also gives the horse a better break over, so they’re not straining anything else anywhere up their legs.
The longer the heels grow, the more they’re walking on their toes (like wearing high heels), which also points the coffin bone farther down in to the sole. Cutting the heels as short as we can brings the bone up a little closer to where it’s supposed to be. You’ll probably want to have the farrier back in a month for another trim, because the heels will still grow faster and you want any new growth to attach itself to a coffin bone that’s at least close to flush with the ground.
I strongly suggest a “diet pen” or an area big enough that your horse can walk around but not indulge in tons of fresh green grass or alfalfa at their leisure. Since horses like to graze throughout the day, I suggest giving a flake or two of hay 2 or 3 times a day, or only a couple in the afternoon and letting the horse out overnight.
You might also be able to save your hay by letting the horse out for an hour or two first thing in the morning, bringing them in for the day, then letting them out again for another couple hours in the evening while the sun is setting. Remember high school science? Photosynthesis? Sugars raise up the stems and settle down with the sun. You don’t want them out grazing all afternoon when the sun and sugars in the grass are at their peak.
Once a horse has foundered, there’s a good chance they will flare up again, maybe every spring, or just when they break in to the hay field or feed room and over-indulge. There is no cure for founder, but horse owners can manage it with a restricted diet, regular trims and watching for symptoms and changes to their horse’s neck and feet.
When you first notice your horse’s neck swelling up, get them off the grass. If you’re too late and already see the growth rings on the hooves start to turn down at the heels, call your vet, or at least your farrier, immediately. I’ve said this before and will probably say it again: clean out your horse’s feet on a regular basis and really look at them. You’ll likely be able to see even the slightest change and be able to do something about it before it’s too late.
If you have a question you’d like to ask a farrier (about horseshoeing, farriery, hoof and horse health, blacksmith tools, working as a farrier, etc.), leave it in the comments below. Every month, we’ll pick one question to answer in our feature.
image: eberhard grossgasteiger