Question: We bought a 17-year-old pony from a friend and when they delivered her to us they told us she had developed a stone bruise in the past few days but it would heal and was nothing serious. A few weeks later she was worse so we called in a farrier, and he told us she had laminitis. Other friends told us to get our money back because she will not recover at her age and will always have pain. What do you think?
Answer: This is the season to really think about laminitis. Many ponies have had laminitis or even a more severe founder and may have damage inside the hoof. However, ponies usually still do very well when they are managed correctly and trimmed well. Horses, likely due to their larger body weight, may be more difficult to manage if they have severe damage inside their foot but even they can do very well.
If you have a pony who does her job well and takes good care of the kids, it will be worth going the extra mile to help her out. Good, safe ponies are worth their weight in gold. Most ponies will need some type of grass and diet management anyway, so you will not escape this by getting another pony. On the other had, if this pony is not ideal for you, it may be worth returning her. Seventeen years old is not old in the life of most ponies as they can live easily into their 30s. And in fact, a 17-year-old pony is perfect for most kids because they can teach the kids safely.
So, how should you manage this pony so you can get many more useful years from her? She will need a small paddock that has little grass or green material (read about grass at >www.safergrass.org). Hopefully she can have a friend to keep her company. If she will wear a muzzle you can often turn her out in a larger pasture that has some grass, and the muzzle will limit the amount of grass she will take in. However, during the recovery period, even that amount of grass may be too much. Some ponies can never have any access to grass, they are just too sensitive. You can get muzzles from many places, including your local tack store. I import a comfortable style of muzzle that fits many ponies on my website.
These ponies with laminitis are insulin resistant, which means they do not process the sugars in the grass properly. When they take in sugars they store it as fat in improper places, such as the crest of the neck and above the tail. The muscle cells do not get proper fuel since the sugar they need is stored in the fat. Look at her critically to determine her body weight and shape: is she fat or normal weight; can you see her ribs; does she have a really round, raised neck crest; does she have lumps of fat next to her tail; does she have fat pads behind her shoulders or puffiness above her eyes? All these are signs of insulin resistance. A very important observation is whether her neck and tail fat is lumpy and hard or soft. If it is lumpy she is in danger of getting laminitis again any day. If it is not lumpy, you have a little more time before she gets into trouble. Once you know what to look for you can see a change in her fat after even an evening of too much grass.
How does her coat look? Did she shed her winter coat out well? Is her coat shiny? How is her attitude--does she feel well and happy or is she grumpy? Does she have any other symptoms? You can have your veterinarian check her out to make sure there is nothing else going on. Have some blood work done to check her insulin levels if you wish. Many veterinarians are not very familiar with insulin resistance and will determine that she has Cushing's disease. The drug usually prescribed is called pergolide, which can help some ponies but does have side effects. Often good supplementation and management will do more for these ponies than the drug.
Next she will need some supplements to help her metabolism. The most important one is flax or hemp for the essential fatty acids. These ingredients help the sugar metabolism and have the added effect of allowing her to have something healthy to eat when the other horses eat. Feed about 3-4 oz. twice a day of either whole flax (if she has good teeth) or naturally stabilized flax. Do not get regular ground flax that is not stabilized. If you need to mix the flax with something, you can use a couple of handfuls of soaked beet pulp without molasses.