Give a Foundered Horse a Chance

©2013 Doug Butler PhD, CJF, FWCF
Butler Professional Farrier School

“Saying the final goodbye to a beloved family friend of the equine variety can be very heart-rending. If that sad time can be delayed, and several more happy useful years added, everyone rejoices.”

These and the following lines from an article called “Equine Reprieve” were written by Kay Campbell, who served as my very competent secretary at Colorado State University. She wrote the following article several years after she retired from CSU. A picture of her daughter Sally and the two “family” equines she writes about appear on the cover of my book Six-Figure Shoeing.

“Cocoa, whom we bought as a yearling, was in our family for several years, and enjoyed by our three children until they outgrew him. He spent a number of years with another family of children, where unfortunately he was allowed to graze in an old apple orchard and founder on drop apples. When he came back to us in the fall of 1992, he was very thin and in poor health. In the spring of that following year, when the grass greened up, he foundered again, an occurrence not too uncommon in ponies and some horses.

“He became so lame that he spent most of the day lying down. Since he was 22 years old, it seemed there was little recourse but to have the vet euthanize him. Dr. Butler was consulted, and he applied special “heart bar” shoes to Cocoa’s front feet. Improvement was slow, but within a few days, he would stay up a little longer after eating. In a few weeks, he was able to walk around his pen when he saw his feed coming.

“Now after two years time, he gallops in the pasture and gives a new generation of children (the grandchildren), a wonderful ride. His eyes sparkle, his coat shines, and he tosses his head sideways in his own special way – something he had not done in a long time. Needless to say, we are all enjoying his recovery. We know that eventually his years will run out, but until then we enjoy him fully.

“Gypsy was foaled on our place. She became our daughter Sally’s 4-H horse, and they participated in many shows over the years in every event imaginable. Gypsy always gave her best, honestly and devotedly. Within six months of Cocoa’s founder she also developed a milder case. It was never quite clear why. She was very lame and uncomfortable, spending a lot of time lying down.

“After Dr. Butler applied heart bar shoes to her front feet, she was able to move around comfortably. A year later, she is sound and eagerly takes the lead on trail rides, though she still wears her special shoes and consumes a very carefully monitored diet of mostly grass hay. Cocoa’s diet is basically the same, except for less quantity of hay. In the spring, when the grass greens up, they are both carefully allowed only 15 to 20 minutes of grazing per day.

“Cocoa’s extended life has made it possible for Kacey, our 4½ year old grandson, to ride and enjoy the same pony his father, uncle and aunt rode years ago! Now, that is hard to beat! We look forward to several more happy years with our horse and pony.”

I have chosen to publish this along with e-mails from former students. The first one is from the east coast and the second is from the west coast.

“A couple weeks after the initial diagnosis, the vet called me and asked me to join her in treating a severely foundered horse. The horse got Potomac fever and foundered in all four feet. The X-rays showed some minor rotation, and she suggested Equithane pads without shoes for the short term, and I suggested some kind of frog support/heart bar shoes for the long term, and she agreed.

“The horse was in such pain we had to work on him laying down. I managed to clean and dry all four feet, and pour (inject) Equi-Pak pads on all four feet only on his frog and the rear of his sole. I also trimmed the toes way back. The horse was kept in deep soft bedding and his feet were iced for twenty minutes on /twenty minutes off, around the clock for two weeks. He showed some signs of improvement, the Potomac fever was gone and he started gaining weight and walking around his stall with some comfort.

“We were about to put heart bars on when the horse owner’s regular farrier was told about it and threw a hissy fit, so she brought him back on the case. He promptly put on egg bars, without sole relief or frog support, and nailed them tight to the toes. A few days later the coffin bone on two feet pushed right through the sole along the inside edge of the shoe!

“So, I was asked to come back on the case, with the horse worse off than before. Serum was oozing through the wounds in the soles, and significant rotation had occurred. New X-rays showed some minor remodeling of the coffin bone tip on one foot.

“Some protection had to be given to the front portion of the foot while eliminating all possible stress on the toe. The open wounds needed to be medicated regularly to prevent infection. To complicate matters, the horse (by now two and one-half months into this ordeal) had shed its frogs, completely, so there wasn’t much support possible without a heart bar with a very tall shim. I made shoes seating them well off the toes, nearly a quarter of an inch; punched two holes in each branch way back at the heels, and protected the bottom of the foot with a flexible pad. With the horse lying down, I nailed the shoes on. I filled up the gap between his now shed frogs and the pad with Equi-Pak CS. I again cut his toes way back.

“Three weeks have gone by and the horse is up and down all day and shows only minor signs of becoming more comfortable. The owner and the vet are giving the horse until the end of the month.”

Ten days later we received the following e-mail:

“The owner put the horse down last Friday. Beforehand the vet was determined to try the strap-on massive 12 degree heel wedges suggested in a book written by an area veterinarian. I advised against it, and X-rays showed that 12 degrees would position P3 vertically. Despite the already compromised sole, the vet wanted to try it. Five minutes later, the bone had nearly pushed through. Any healing in the sole was undone. The owner had reached her limit.
The cold comfort is that we were right.”

The second one came from the west coast from a student who shoes race horses.

“I got invited by a shoer at the track to watch as a foundered racehorse was being shod today. The horse was foundered in his right front foot. The horse was barefoot until today when a square -toed race plate was glued on by the farrier. It provided him with no visual relief. The hoof was resected by the vet at the toe because the horse had multiple abscesses. The entire bottom of the hoof was filled with Equi-pak material. The horse couldn’t bear weight on his foot when they were through.

“The shoer who invited me knew I had been to your school and wanted to know if I could offer any advice. I told them the horse needed frog support with a heart bar shoe. I found it to be a very frustrating experience. The vet didn’t want to use the heart bar. I never got an explanation as to why. There were two other shoers there and the trainer. Another vet stopped by and wanted the horse’s bute increased to 2gms/day. After he left, I commented that the horse would probably be better off without the bute because the pain may get him to lay down and get his feet level with his heart, decrease its pain and encourage healing. I don’t think that got me anywhere either.

“That is the second foundered/laminitic horse I’ve run across in the last month. The other one was a Quarter Horse at the track with acute laminitis. It happened last Sunday morning. The horse couldn’t walk. The vet thought it was laminitis as well, but didn’t want to use any sort of frog support. Instead, she had me pull the shoes and she put the horse in boots.

“Although I really feel like I could have helped the horse based on what I learned at school, their minds were already made up. It’s really interesting how people won’t try anything tried and true, even though the path they are taking is clearly failing.”

On a positive note – a former student from Israel e-mailed us that he had shod a foundered horse in the way he was taught by us, and the horse recovered completely. The horse had been insured for $18,000 and after he fixed it – it was sold for $10,000 more than its original insured value!

What can we learn from these several cases? – or, when to say NO!

1. Using a time-tested method for treating these difficult cases that is endorsed by experienced people gives the greatest chance for success.

2. Accepting the responsibility to work for a non-committed owner on a horse that has passed the “window of opportunity” to get well is unwise.

3. Allowing a farrier to nail an egg bar or open shoe tight to the toe without significant sole relief can kill a foundered horse!

4. Working with a vet not familiar with the best way to treat founder cases is disappointing.

5. Raising the heels on foundered horses with the bone coming through the sole is a mistake!

6. Working with an owner who can’t commit to following your professional advice can mean death for the horse and suicide for your business.

7. Persons convinced they have all the answers are slow to accept anything outside their realm of experience. “Those convinced against their will, are of the same opinion still.”

This week we worked on two foundered horses at our school referred by local veterinarians. One we put heart bars on with a shim and hospital plates due to its thin soles; the other with regular heart bar shoes only. Both were immediately more comfortable. We have had great success in rehabilitating foundered horses when the client is willing to follow directions – such as reducing the horse’s food intake when it’s overweight and monthly resetting the shoes until the new hoof grows out and frog support shoes are no longer required.

I thought I’d share these experiences with you in the hope that they will be helpful – along with the above seven points – since the spring founder season is now upon us.

Laminitis and Founder a book by Farrier Doug Butler and Veterinarian Frank Gravlee, gives specific instruction on how to deal with these foot diseases. A limited number are available at

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