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Could you please tell me what foundering means and how to avoid it. We just started with horses and everybody says not to let her eat grass all the time because she will founder, but they never can tell me what it is.

- C. I.


This will be an over-simplified explanation of a somewhat complex problem.

Founder -- so closely related to laminitis that the terms are often used interchangeably -- results when laminitis (an inflamation of the laminae of a horse's feet) causes pain in the foot and often produces a downward movement of the coffin bone. This downward movement is known as founder.

Without getting too technical, the laminae are the cells on the inner surface of the hoof wall. As the inflammation progresses, fluid builds between the hoof wall and the bone. That pressure can eventually push the bone away from the hoof, causing it to "sink" (which is what the word "founder" means) or "rotate." At that point, every step the horse takes will put pressure on the rather sharp forward edge of the coffin bone. In advanced cases, the bone can even push all the way through the sole of the foot.

Some of the things that can trigger laminitis -- and eventually founder -- are an over-heated horse drinking cold water; eating an excessive amount of grain; concussion of the feet during hard and fast road work; working an out-of-shape horse too hard; turning a horse loose on unlimited fresh grass after being on hay all winter; a retained placenta; and a variety of allergies and toxins.

Although some cases can be so mild that we never notice them, lamititis often comes on hard and fast. Symptoms include fever, warmth in the foot, increased heart rate, and of course, signs of pain in the feet.

Obviously, if this happens, you'll need to get your vet involved ASAP, and if the horse actually founders, you'll also need the services of a farrier with experience in this area.

Hopefully, by taking care to avoid situations that can lead to laminitis, you'll never have to deal with treatment of founder. Specifically, in spring you'll want to turn the horses out on fresh grass for just a few hours at a time until they adjust to the new, rich feed.

Happy Horse Care!

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