Surviving Founder


I wrote this piece because sometimes it’s good to hear, when you are going through something terrible, that there is hope once you’ve made your way through it.

This is a story of founder survival not only on my horse’s part but also on mine. I regret the poor decisions that I made that led to this story ever happening. I regretted it then & I regret it now. But we survived. I learned some very important lessons. While I hope to never witness it again, there are some positives that came out of a terrible circumstance.

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Founder isn’t always a death sentence. Some horses do beat the odds. Here is our story.

Surviving Founder

When I had first purchased my mare in 2007 she had come from a stable where she was consistently ridden.  She was provided with regular turn out but there was little available pasture on the small hunter/jumper facility’s property. She was fit and had sailed through the pre-purchase exam with no serious red flags. Prior to the awful days ahead I had discovered that my mare was a typical easy keeper as she had quickly put on weight when she spent time grazing our farm’s abundant pastures.

Although she did not exhibit the cresty neck sometimes associated with candidates for laminitis or founder, she soon became around fifty to seventy-five pounds overweight. Looking back I should have been limiting her exposure to pasture but for a lot of reasons, none of which are good ones, I didn’t immediately take note of the changes to her body.  I was however devoting time to exercising her.  I rode her two to three days per week as a trail, low level dressage and low hunter over fences horse. The exercise just wasn’t enough to affect her weight. The entire sad experience goes to prove that even experienced horse people can make mistakes.

Before our story begins I feel obliged to share that not every horse will beat the odds and survive founder. In addition, every owner’s situation is different and every owner is not equipped physically, emotionally, financially, etc. to help a horse get through to the other side of founder.

My story of survival should not be viewed as a model for success, surely we had any number of failures along the way, but more as an inspiration that under the right set of circumstances survival is a real possibility. I firmly believe that my horse and I make up a pair of the lucky ones aided in our success by talented veterinarians and farriers. The toll on us was large on a number of fronts. We had just as many setbacks as lucky breaks but we made it.  While I’m not wealthy by any means I was able to make our situation work for us.

Our founder survival story began in the middle of April 2008. That time found me preparing for a work related out of town conference. I had made my usual stop by our home farm one early afternoon on the way home from work to feed the horses but when I opened the gate my beautiful, spirited Half-Arabian mare did not come running to meet me as usual. Only slightly concerned at this point, I picked up a halter from the barn and headed down into the pasture.  I found her standing under a shade tree at the foot of a hill. Gently chiding her for her sluggish behavior I gave her a quick once over. While she did not appear to be in any distress, she was reluctant to walk back to the barn.

When we finally made it, I put her on the longe line to see if I could detect any lameness.  Having no prior experience with laminitis or founder, I did not initially suspect either and was at the time more concerned with some type of injury or perhaps an abscess. On the longe at the walk, she appeared to be only slightly “off.” It was difficult to distinguish if her slight lameness originated from one or both front feet. It was also difficult to get her to trot making it even more challenging for me to assess the severity of the lameness or make any additional findings about its origination.

As she otherwise appeared to be okay with no heat or swelling in her limbs or feet, this would appear later, I opted to administer a small dose of phenylbutazone from my first aid kit to aid in relieving her discomfort.  I turned her back out and moved ahead with distributing the evening’s feed asking my husband to keep tabs on her and alert me of any changes while I was away.

Looking back, these were the first in a series of serious mistakes. At the time, I had no reason to suspect what lay ahead. Despite my extensive background with horses I had no prior experience with either laminitis or founder. Coming from that I could not have known that by the time I would return from my business trip a little over two days later she would be exhibiting the classic rocked back stance of founder or that I would become well read and much practiced on the subject. Although not how I would have preferred to receive my education on this topic the experience did make me a better horseman because of it.

In our area of the country, large animal veterinarians are hard to come by. By necessity, farm owners are accustomed to regularly providing veterinary care to their own animals but in this instance I opted to go ahead a place a call to the vet who serviced our farm for the types of problems that occasionally come up that are beyond our scope. I’m not certain, despite what I described, that he was totally convinced that it was founder but as an emergency prevented him from making it out to examine her for himself he suggested a schedule for immersing her front feet and legs in ice water to control inflammation and administering additional doses of phenylbutazone aimed at controlling pain and inflammation along with a small dose of acepromazine thought to lower blood pressure through the dilation of small blood vessels possibly improving circulation in the hooves.

As another measure of pain relief, he made suggestions for softer, deeper footing in her stall. In addition, he wanted her taken her off pasture and grain so as not to add further causatives to the episode. Instead, she was to be provided with only hay and water for the night as well as the days ahead. None of these measures would prove harmful in the event that my suspicions proved incorrect. Gradually tapering her dose, she was to stay on the anti-inflammatory medication for two weeks then return to it throughout the next month on an as needed basis to address any lingering soreness. Her regimen of acepromazine continued for five days.

After the first few days I began to process the situation and became concerned about the effects of the long term use of phenylbutazone. This led my vet and I to discuss and ultimately decided to also place her on an ulcer medication as long as she continued to receive regular doses of the anti-inflammatory drug.  I also elected to place her on a biotin supplement to help support the growth of quality hoof.

Aside from veterinary care I also contacted my farrier and asked him to pay a visit. Upon his arrival he pulled the front shoes she normally wore and replaced them with light weight aluminum egg bar shoes with wedges for support of her soles and heels as well as to relieve pressure on the toes. The lightweight aluminum allowed the shoes to be secured to her hooves with fewer nails.

Her recovery progressed as well as could be expected and by day seventeen I was able to take her out for hand walks as well as allowing her short periods of time hand grazing with a muzzle which seemed to improve her frame of mind. By day twenty-five, as her founder episode appeared to be mild, my vet gave the okay for a ten minute, walk only under saddle session on a soft surface which was really more of an experiment than a return to work.

She was however sore the following day which answered our question, even this small amount of extra activity appeared to be too much too soon. A few more days on her anti-inflammatory medication and she was once again comfortable. I was able to make a successful second attempt on day thirty-three. On this same day my vet paid a visit and took a set of x-rays which revealed mild rotation in both front feet but her pastern alignment was good as was her sole depth.  He asked that my farrier increase the degree of wedge on her shoes on his next visit out but otherwise predicted a full return to service.

With the okay of my vet and farrier as well as careful monitoring we began a meticulously slow come back. I was optimistic that we had dodged the proverbial bullet but it was not long after the pronouncement that she would return to full health that she began to experience abscesses averaging every three weeks over a two month period. Any attempt at riding ground to a halt.

In desperation I turned to an equine specialty veterinary clinic and we made the several hour trip to another state to seek the advice of a respected veterinarian in the field who had put himself through vet school as a farrier.  Upon our arrival we were ushered into the clinic for x-rays which quickly revealed nine degrees rotation in both front feet in addition to separation of the hoof wall which had likely developed from chronic laminitis during the ongoing weeks of abscesses.

I think that was the first time throughout the entire process that I gave serious consideration to having her put down. The vet however offered an alternative; he felt that she could be saved. I took a moment to spend some time alone with my precious mare, our relationship still so new. I looked into her eyes just as I would many times in the days to come and silently asked her if she wanted to go on. On that day and the many that followed during her treatment she always unfailingly answered yes. Moments later she was admitted to the clinic and fitted with pads to relieve some of the pain in her feet. The first thing the next morning my mare was visited by the clinic’s equine podiatrist where she was issued a four point trim, pour in pads, and a wedge shoe. The podiatrist explained that the four point trim would aid in the growth of a long foot with a short toe as well as pulling her break over point back thereby aiding in pastern alignment and providing support for her bones. The pour in pads would increase the level of support initially provided by the egg bar shoes while the wedges would continue to provide support for her heels.

Following her week long hospital stay, she would continue to receive this identical trim, shoeing, etc. every four weeks for the next year.  Almost immediately after the shoeing she seemed to breathe the first sigh of relief in a very long time, her level of pain already dramatically reduced. During her hospital stay she was also started on a regimen of Isoxsuprine to increase blood flow to her feet, phenylbutazone for pain and inflammation, and Pergolide to address the possibility of Cushing’s disease which continued twice daily upon her return home.

Thankfully, she always took her medication without fanfare.  Many early mornings, counting out pills in the dark of an early day, I questioned if I was doing the right thing but in her own way she supported me much as I was supporting her. Once back to my farm, she was able to be turned out for short periods with a grazing muzzle as long as she experienced no discomfort. The frequency of the reoccurring abscesses began to decrease and eventually disappeared altogether. The fear of Cushing’s was determined to be unfounded. However, even without testing, my vet feels that she is insulin resistant which was likely the precursor of the events leading up to this time.

A year after my mare was discharged from the clinic she received a third set of x-rays that revealed positive changes in her hooves. They had slowly gone back from nine to four degrees rotation.

Though I haven’t had her x-rayed since then I suspect that she has improved still more. It has been seven years since she foundered and her hooves have an excellent quality and appearance with no founder rings whatsoever.  She receives no special trim or shoes nor does she take any type of medication. Thanks to diet and exercise, her weight is now more ideal.  Many who are aware of her background marvel that without their knowledge they would never guess that she was a founder survivor. With the exception of about three months of the year when there is little to no grass available in our pastures she is kept on a dry lot and fed a diet consisting only of grass hay, a ration balancer, a free choice mineral block and plenty of fresh water.

With one caveat, I am happy to report that she is completely sound and has made the full return to service that was originally predicted. On the day we left the vet clinic I had an honest discussion with my veterinarian about her return to jumping.  I was prepared to give it up and modify her lifestyle in whatever way necessary. However he felt that she could safely negotiate fences up to 2’6” in height without causing further damage but did not recommend exceeding this level. We never have and she continues to safely and soundly jump today.

I have never felt that we missed out on any opportunities because of this limitation. One of my proudest moments occurred sometime later when she made her return to the show ring. She paid the care she received back in spades by carefully negotiating my young daughter, during her brief riding career, around a course of walk/trot poles.  I’ve never forgotten the kindness she showed her and continues to show her today. The present finds the two of us sharing a deeper bond, thanks to the many hours spent together during the long treatment and recovery period, than most horses and their owner/riders will experience.  While I will never be happy that she foundered or recover from the guilt of not having prevented it, I can say that I am happy to have the relationship that we share because of it.

© Hope Ellis-Ashburn


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