Chapter 8 – Are there different levels of severity to founder?

Yes there are. As mentioned previously, each level has a different name, but the common layman’s term for this infliction is ‘founder’.

There are three levels of severity of founder, as mentioned. Each level builds onto lesser degree and increases in damage as the lameness progresses over time. The three levels are Laminitis, Acute Laminitis and Founder.

Laminitis – This level starts with minor inflammation to the lamina, the finger-joint-like connective tissue that binds the outer hoof wall to the inner hoof capsule, and is when the blood supply to the lamina starts being compromised or restricted. This is the first stage of founder, is sometimes hard to detect, and is the stage in which you really want to try to arrest the situation. If you can stop the problem here, there will be little damage to the inner hoof and lamina. The damage won’t be visible for about a month, but it should be minor when you do. There is only a small chance that the feet will abscess, but if they do, signs of abscessing probably won’t show up for about two weeks.

Signs of this early stage may include ‘ouchiness’ or tender footedness combined with not eating or drinking quite normally. There is usually a slightly raised temperature in the horse and the digital pulse in the foot. It is possible the hind feet will be pulled underneath the body to take some pressure off of the front feet. This stage can be hard to distinguish if you do not know your horse’s personality or behavior patterns very well. Outwardly, it can look as though the horse is a little ‘off’, may appear that the last trim or shoeing caused him some foot pain, may be developing an abscess or, if your horse is particularly stoic, may not even be noticed at all.

What can you do to arrest the situation here should you believe your horse is in this early stage? Have the horse stand in a cool stream, stand in cool peanut-butter consistency mud, stand on a closed-cell foam rubber pad that is thick enough to support the entire foot including the frog and commissars, take the shoes off (if there are shoes applied), and contact your vet to see what anti-histamines or other such substances your vet would recommend. Contact a qualified founder specialist so they can apply a trim to help minimize further damage to the inner hoof. If the horse is normally stalled, remove them from the stall so they can have full access to a sand arena, a round pen full of pea gravel, or a pasture that has clean mud, sand and pea gravel, so the horse can move around, stimulate the frog and sole and can promote good circulation. If the horse has access to these textures, foam rubber pads and slippers won’t be necessary at this time. The idea is to support the entire ground surface of the foot, keep the frog and sole working to keep fluid moving through the foot and not get trapped or built up, and help provide comfort to help the horse continue moving to help minimize damage, support the inner hoof, manage pain and encourage movement in a controlled area.

How long do you have to react after you first find the problem? Well, that really depends on the pain threshold of your horse. If your horse is the ‘Princess and the Pea’ type, you should see something within a few hours of the onset of the problem. At that point in time, you’ll want to try to have something done by the vet and farrier within 24 to 36 hours, 48 hours at the absolute most. But in the meantime, you should be cooling the feet the best you can, have them moving with full support of the frogs, bars and sole, and have them moving on pea gravel or course sand if possible. Otherwise, get some closed-cell foam pads. If your horse is more stoic, you probably have less time to react to minimize the risk of further damage, say 12 to 24 hours. Reason is, your horse is less likely to show you he’s in pain, so when he does show some pain, the problem is already setting in. So try to move fast.


Acute Laminitis – By this stage, the inflammation to the lamina is greater, there is more fluid build-up in the feet, the blood supply to the foot is being constricted and restricted, and the lamina are beginning to loose suppleness. The horse is moving less so there is less circulation, less stimulation to the frog and sole and the lamina are beginning to die off and are loosing their ability to bind the hoof wall with the inner hoof capsule. It will only be a matter of time before the lamina loose hold and the coffin bone begins to rotate. Abscessing is almost a given with this stage. Typically, the initial abscesses will be clear liquidy and will erupt from the toe region of the sole. But signs of abscessing probably won’t occur right away; depending on the length of time the horse has been laminitic. Typical abscessing occurs generally about two weeks after the onset of laminitis. Abscessing can occur off and on until the foot is fully repaired.

The weight and size of the horse will begin to play a factor, especially if he is very large or over weight. The diet should be looked into to determine if a lower protein or lower calorie diet is in order to facilitate steady, but sure weight loss. The heavier a horse is, the more severe the pain and damage can be to the feet. Shoes will also play a factor. Shoes will prevent the inner hoof from supporting itself adequately enough to prevent separation and rotation. So if shoes are involved, they should be removed just as soon as possible and some kind of support provided to the underside of the hoof.

Without providing foam rubber pads, pea gravel, etc., the signs as described above (Laminitis section) will become more intense and more obvious. The horse will very likely have the hind feet pulled way under the body and he will likely not want to move at all. He will have a definite look of pain on his face, which can be accompanied by sweating. The digital pulse can be quite pronounced and the heart rate will generally be much faster. In some cases, the horse will even lay down and not want to stand or walk, but will still have a decent appetite for food and water. Remember, each horse is different and their pain tolerance will govern how much or how little evidence you can actually detect, but there will be evidence, nonetheless.


Founder – This is the third and final stage to the general condition of founder. Rotation of the coffin bone has occurred, but can only be verified by x-rays. The original bone alignment of the long pastern bone (P-1 or first phalanx), the short pastern bone (P-2 or second phalanx) and the coffin bone (P-3 or third phalanx and sometimes call the pedal bone) has changed to where P-3 is likely either in straight alignment with P-1 and P-2 or has rotated further downward. The once thin white-line (which is the layer of lamina) will be getting thicker or wider, mostly in the toe region. It likely has started to become keratonized or ‘caramelized’. The inner hoof capsule can become completely detached from the majority of the hoof wall and the whole capsule can sink or rotate downward. (Note: To date, I have yet to ever see a coffin bone actually penetrate the sole, as many vets and farriers will tend to warn. Physiologically, it is virtually impossible.) By the time a horse has gotten to this stage, the condition has been present for quite some time, perhaps as little as a week, but more likely longer.

The horse is in severe pain by this period. Abscessing is much more prevalent and more frequent. The horse by now may be laying down much more than it’s trying to stand or walk. Without proper attention to the feet, the heels will grow faster than the toes, the sole will continue to grow from the rear of the foot and will push forward towards the toe, the toe of the wall will tend to want to curl upward so that in time, the foot can look like an elf’s shoe. Many other factors come into play and there are many levels of severity of the final founder state.