As I write it’s October, and not the time of year I would have suspected our horses to be susceptible to grass founder/laminitis. We have about 15 acres of (thin) pasture — not rich grass, rather acidic soil and so the horses spend a good amount of time walking around looking for the choice spots.

Grass founder most commonly occurs during the spring, and is the result of allowing your horse to eat too much lush grass at once after a long barren winter. Horse owners know that you cannot just turn your horse out to pasture and let him eat to his heart’s content, as too much lush grass can cause laminitis, a painful swelling of the sensitive laminae of the feet, and lead to a severe problem known as founder, and will be extremely painful for the horse. Eventually, the heel of the foot accelerates in growth, the coffin bone can rotate downward directly toward the sole (and in some instances, can penetrate through the sole), the sensitive laminae is separated from the horny laminae, and your horse is lame.

Founder may be acute or chronic, and it may involve any or all feet. Most commonly, both forefeet are affected. Consuming too much lush grass causes the “good” bacteria in the horse’s gut to die and then release toxins, which through a long chain of events end up as a ‘fever’ in the feet. General symptoms include a rise in temperature up to 106 degrees F, with accompanying increase in respiration and pulse rate. In some cases, the pain is so intense as to produce spasms and profuse sweating. The horse will try to relieve the pain in his feet by shifting his weight — standing with his front feet forward if those are affected, often ‘pointing’ one front foot and then the other; or bringing his hind feet well underneath him if the hind feet are affected. The horse may lie down and rise reluctantly, or he may stand and resist movement.

Local signs are marked — the foundered feet are warm to the touch. The pulse of the digital artery on the affected feet is hard and bounding. Even mild pressure by hoof testers applied across the quarters of the hoof produces great pain.

In mild cases, recovery may occur in about 10 days. In severe cases, the prognosis is poor and the condition is likely to terminate in chronic laminitis. The hoof becomes distorted and the anterior wall becomes concave, with the hoof longer, the heels higher, and the hoof walls corrugated.

Managing your horse’s eating, and limiting his time initially in a pasture with new lush grass can greatly reduce the chance of grass founder. The best way to do this is to start with just 1/2 hour a day of allowing the horse to graze on new grass. Then increase his grazing time slowly, by 1/2 to one hour over a couple days, moving on to longer periods of two to three hours per day. By the end of a week you can turn the horse out for four hours — gradually increasing his grazing time until about the 10th day, when he should be able to be on full turnout.

Our horses have access to their pasture every day, however this summer they seemed reluctant to head up to the pasture and spent many days in the paddock eating hay. But once the fly season seemed to abate, in mid-September, we noticed they were anxious to return to the pasture and in fact spent many more hours than they normally would — so much that I had to go up and look for them on a couple occasions. Sure enough, on the third morning, I noticed that they both had what appeared to be sore feet.

Morgan’s feet seemed slightly warm, not hot, and I didn’t detect a bounding pulse nor did she have a fever, and so I felt it was okay to just keep her off pasture grass for a few days and feed hay in the paddock. That seemed to work, and I made a mental note to change the horses’ turnout time to just a few hours in the afternoon every couple days.

Sabrina, on the other hand, was noticeably lame in her right front foot; so much so that by the second morning she could barely put any weight on it. Fortunately she was due to have her feet trimmed and I gave her some Bute for the pain well ahead of time.

When Margaret came to trim her, she carefully felt all four feet and said she thought that Sabrina had an abscess. She trimmed her feet but we couldn’t see any wound or point of entry into the foot that sometimes causes an abscess (such as stepping on a nail or sharp object) but Margaret accurately predicted that was what was causing the pain in Sabrina’s foot.

In the past I’ve attempted to soak the foot in Epsom salts and warm water, or concoct a drawing salve of equal parts of grated Fels Naphtha soap and sugar with just enough water to make a paste, put on a baby diaper and affixed with duct tape, but was never successful in having it stay on the foot for more than a day. Margaret offered to show me her method of making a homemade soaking boot that will stay on for as long as necessary (Seven days being the maximum amount of time you’d want to keep it on until the abscess breaks through.)

First, have your horse tied and lay out all the materials you’ll need. This includes a clean towel, a bucket of warm water and scrub brush, Epsom salt, a baby diaper, an entire roll of Vetwrap, a flexible tube (like a straw) a small plastic syringe and duct tape.

Margaret began the process by picking out and brushing off the foot, then scrubbing Sabrina’s foot clean with the warm water and brush. Although this isn’t a sterile process, this step is useful because sometimes you can see on the cleaned foot something you missed — a wound or cut (we didn’t.) She then put Sabrina’s foot down on the towel to stay clean.

Next she made the duct tape pad by tearing off 15-inch-long strips of the duct tape and put them in a criss-cross pattern on her leg (she was wearing a leather farrier’s apron) overlapping each layer by about 1/4 of an inch and using about six pieces going each way. This makes a good seal and help keeps the “environment” — such as mud and manure — out of the bandage so it doesn’t soak in manure as easily. She gets the pad ready on her leg, then gets everything else laid out and started — opening the package of Vetwrap and folding the end over as well as the end of the duct tape to have them ready as you need to work quickly. Get the diaper ready by laying it out and opening the tabs.

She picked up Sabrina’s foot and poured a generous amount of dry epson salt — at least a cupful — onto the bottom of the foot, then quickly affixed the diaper over it. She inserted half of the flexible tube under the diaper in-between the bulbs of the heel, then used the entire roll of Vetwrap over and around the whole hoof — not too tight, but enough to securely cover the diaper. Working quickly, she then lifted off the duct tape pad from her leg and applied it to the bottom of the foot, then set the foot down. She checked to be sure the diaper/bandage was not too tight around the coronary band, then took a couple more strips of duct tape and applied them around and across the foot over top of the duct tape pad she had just put on.

Next it was time to add water to create a ‘soaking boot’ by drawing up some of the warm water from the bucket into the syringe and inserting it into the flexible plastic tube to moisten the epsom salt underneath the diaper, squirting two syringes of water in. Sometimes a horse may act as though it stings, so be prepared for them to snatch their foot up. You can hear the water going in the tube, and can feel the bandage become “squishy” — two syringes of water generally are enough. Your homemade soaking boot is ready to go. Margaret said she’s never had a bad reaction or infection as a result, and finds that within three days the horse should be feeling better. It can be left on for seven days but even after a couple of days if you notice the foot is not improving at all it’s a good idea to contact your veterinarian.

I did so after three days and explained all we did. He prescribed Bute twice a day and said the abscess would ‘pop’ (come to a head and break open) in a few days. On the evening of the 6th day Sabrina was much more comfortable and when I cut the soaking boot off, saw where the abscess had opened up and the infection had left, just at the coronary band on the top of her foot. We were both relieved — and I’m happy to say that she is doing well and the foot has healed.

Again, if you suspect founder or laminitis; or an abscess that does not respond to treatment, don’t wait to contact your veterinarian for a complete diagnosis and follow-up care.