Founder: Returning From the Brink

It was feeding time and Miss Donna, a drafty, old-style Haflinger, galloped across the pasture toward the barn. That might not seem like an impressive activity for most horses, but just two years ago, she was almost slated for euthanasia.

Founder. It's one of those images that puts fear into our hearts. Donna's initial onset occurred three years ago in December. Aaron Tangeman, DVM, examined her and took radiographs of both front feet. The initial films revealed 17 degrees of rotation of the coffin bone in the right foot and 12 degrees in the left. The treatment he prescribed was strict stall rest with sand bedding to help support the soles of her feet, Bute to control pain and inflammation, and Thyro-L to address any problem with thyroid metabolism. Weight management was also initiated. My farrier was on board for frequent hoof care. Because the founder had been diagnosed and treated early, I was optimistic that she would do well.

Winter turned to spring and as I let her out of her stall, Donna continued to walk stiffly, her feet obviously tender. Then, there came the morning she wouldn't leave the barn. Not wanting to be left behind, the herd matriarch whinnied after the other horses as they headed out to pasture. Inspecting her feet, I noticed a bubble that resembled gelatin amidst the hair covering the coronary band of her right foot. Dr. Tangeman's treatment for hoof abscesses included a round of penicillin and maintaining the administration of Bute. The farrier was keeping her heels long and toes short to support her hoof against the tension of her flexor tendons. The chronic recurrence of the abscesses over the next few months was weakening the hoof wall and causing cracks and breakage with the daily wear and tear on her feet.

Donna lost weight. Severely debilitated and in pain, her ability to walk was limited. In the mornings, I would often find her less than 20 feet from where I had last seen her. I carried her water and hay, which she sometimes left untouched. She was getting very tired of the penicillin injections twice daily. I spoke with a neighbor about preparing a burial site. I feared she would not be leaving the farm.

I had not followed one of Dr. Tangeman's recommendations--applying Ichthammol poultices to Donna's soles. I had not heard of such a treatment and couldn't imagine how a foot wrap could stay intact in wet, muddy conditions. My horse-savvy neighbor, Mary Sue, insisted that we apply the Ichthammol, explaining that it would help draw the abscesses. We devised an application method with some unorthodox materials. Shelf liner (the spongy, non-slip, perforated kind) layered in three to four thicknesses made excellent padding between the gauze holding the Ichthammol and the Vetrap holding it all together. A rubber boot kept everything clean and dry and lengthened intervals between dressing changes. The additional cushioning immediately eased Donna's walking and actually played a significant role in healing. Dr. Tangeman explained that providing padded support to the sole took the pressure off the hoof wall, allowing the coffin bone to stabilize. The laminae strengthened, allowing Donna a comfortable existence.

I consulted an equine nutritionist about a better feeding plan. I had used Buckeye's Gro-N-Win previously and now started feeding it to all the horses once daily (Gro-N-Win is very low in starch). Donna's coat now shines and her eyes snap with a look of determination. Her hoof wall looks amazingly healthy. My struggle now is preventing her from gaining too much weight.

In the three years since Donna originally foundered, she has responded well to frequent veterinary and farrier care. Radiographs taken a year ago show a decrease in coffin bone rotation of 4 degrees. The road to recovery has been long and tenuous, but as Dr. Tangeman observed, "Outcomes like this make veterinary medicine so rewarding. Seeing Donna galloping in the field, showing her herd dominance after such a long struggle and illness, is a joy."

She has been free from abscesses for nearly a year. I think her willful nature, along with good care, enabled her not only to survive, but to thrive. Strength of character--whether human or equine--never goes out of style.

About the Author

Kimberly Peterson, DVM

Kimberly Peterson, DVM, is an AAEP member and assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Technology at Morehead State University in Morehead, Ky. Her husband, Eric, is an equine practitioner, and their family lives in Lexington.

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