Hoofcare Highlights

First Aid for Laminitis

By Ellen Horowitz

Laminitis is a potentially life threatening condition. Although it is not fully understood, laminitis is thought to be a metabolic disease that disrupts blood circulation to the sensitive laminae of the feet. Founder is the result of severe laminitis. The decreased blood flow causes tissue death so that the coffin bone attachment fails and releases from the hoof wall. The front feet only or all four feet may be involved. Acute laminitis is an emergency.

The causes of laminitis include but are not limited to overeating (grass or grain), complications from surgeries, vaccine reactions, endometritis, and excessive concussion. Horses in the early stages of laminitis display subtle changes in behavior. Symptoms to watch for are listlessness, loss of appetite, and reluctance to walk or move. The feet may feel warm to the touch and the horse may have a strong digital pulse. A horse that grass founders is usually overweight and develops a thick crested neck long before the laminitis onset. Horses with acute laminitis display characteristic stances. They stand with their front legs pointed forward and hind legs slung under; or they draw their front legs back and hind legs forward from a normal standing position. To keep from tearing the laminae they often lie down.

With some laminitis cases the entire foot is painful. In others, only the front portion of the foot becomes involved. In extreme cases the coffin bone comes through the bottom of the foot. Until recently, the prognosis for horses with this condition has not been favorable. Often considered permanently unsound for riding or work, many of these horses ended up euthanized. Recent research indicates that immediate first aid with the application of Styrofoam conforming support blocks protects the internal structures of the foot and restores blood flow to the coffin bone early in the disease process. Teamwork between horse owner, veterinarian and farrier can save a horse from this potentially devastating disease.

Gene Ovnicek, a farrier and clinician from Penrose, Colorado, is internationally known for his work with laminitic horses. He explains that various treatments have been employed over the years, such as standing a horse in deep sand or mud. Now veterinarians and farriers are having great success with Styrofoam support blocks. They’re safe, inexpensive and readily available. He says that the special Styrofoam blocks taped to the bottom of the hoof “provide support to the unstable coffin bone and makes the horse comfortable.” The horse can move around while wearing the support blocks, which allows the foot to pump blood and aid in the healing process.

Applying Styrofoam as a first aid treatment for laminitis can make the difference in the severity of the disease and the horse’s recovery. While Styrofoam support blocks are available commercially, Ovnicek stresses the backyard horse owner can make their own. Make the support blocks in advance so they’re ready to use if the need arises. Always call the veterinarian when laminitis is suspected or any acute hoof pain is noticed. Do not wait to see how bad the horse gets. If the veterinarian cannot come out, call a farrier to help apply the support blocks you have on hand. Many horse owners have also learned this life saving technique.

According to Ovnicek, “Applying Styrofoam can be the most important thing you do for your horse.” Ovnicek coaches numerous horse owners through the procedure each year. The support blocks can also be helpful in cases of stone bruises, or if by accident a horse is sensitive after trimming.

The severity of the laminitis determines how long a horse will remain on the Styrofoam support blocks. If caught during the early stages of the disease, a laminitic horse may only require seven days to three weeks on Styrofoam. More severe cases call for six to eight weeks on support blocks followed by special support shoes. The blocks are ready to remove when “the horse, off pain medication, willingly moves at a walk although the gait is stilted, and the hoof can be lifted off the ground without difficulty,” Ovnicek says.

“ How soon the disease is recognized and how quickly the support blocks are applied will be key factors in the treatment regime and end results,” says Ovnicek. “Acting quickly will simplify the treatment, minimize the complications and offer the patient a higher level of soundness once the treatment is completed.”

Any emergency requires prompt action. First aid for laminitis is no exception. A wise horse owner includes four to eight blocks of two-inch, high-density blue Styrofoam (the type used for insulating house foundations, also called blue board), a full roll of duct tape and Elastikon™ tape in the equine first aid kit along with the following instructions. These inexpensive materials may save your horse’s life.


Figure 1

1. Cut a piece of two-inch, high-density Styrofoam slightly larger than the bottom of the hoof. Cut the Styrofoam block larger rather than smaller. Rasp the top edge of the toe area of the block at the same angle as the dorsal hoof wall. (Fig.1) This makes the block easier to tape on the hoof.

Figure 2

2. Cut two long pieces of duct tape (approximately 12 - 14 inches) and place them on the ground side of the support block in a criss-cross (front to back and side to side). Tape should extend about two inches beyond where the hoof meets the block. (Fig. 2)
Place the support block against the foot. Keep the back of the block even with the back of the frog. The block can extend slightly in front of the toe. Attach the duct tape tabs to the hoof by pulling the back tab first, then the front tab followed by the side tabs.

Figure 3

3. Make two horizontal wraps of duct tape where the lower part of the hoof wall meets the support block. (Fig. 3) If the block slips out of position, reposition it. Make this correction by reversing the direction of the taping. (For example: clockwise on first wraps, counter clockwise to reposition the block.) Continue holding the block in place with one hand and make at least two more wraps over the bulbs of the heels and into the hairline. (Fig. 4) These wraps secure the block to the foot. Make two more horizontal wraps.

Figure 4


Figure 5

4. To protect the bottom side of the support block from dirt and gravel as the horse moves around, cut 6 - 8 seven-inch-long pieces of duct tape. Overlap the strips of duct tape so they form a double layer of protection on the ground side of the block. (Fig. 5) This pad can be made prior to securing it to bottom of block. Add one horizontal wrap to hold the pad in place. Proceed to the next foot. Allow the blocks to compress long enough so the duct tape crushes like the bellows of an accordion. (Fig 6) The blocks will compress to 3/4 inch within about 24 hours. Less active horses may require 48 to 72 hours.

Figure 6


5. Remove the compressed Styrofoam by carefully cutting the tape at the back of the hoof with a sharp knife. Tear off the tape from the sides of the compressed block, but leave the tape on the ground side. The tape strengthens this layer. Save the compressed
Styrofoam. It will have a visible imprint of the horse’s foot showing the frog, bars and sole. Work on one foot at a time so the horse always has a padded foot to stand on.

Figure 7

6. On the compressed Styrofoam, draw a line in an arc from the wide part of the foot imprint to 1/4 inch in front of the apex of the frog to the wide part of the foot (Fig. 7). Trim along this line and save the rear portion that has the foot imprint. Hoof nippers work well for trimming the compressed Styrofoam and duct tape.

7. Place two strips of tape across the ground side of the first compressed layer. Position the molded side back onto the foot so it fits in place. Pull the duct tape tabs down to hold it in place while preparing the second support block.


8. Apply a second Styrofoam support block over the compressed first layer and attach it by repeating steps 1 - 4. Allow this layer to compress for 24 hours.


Figure 8

9. Release both compressed blocks by cutting the tape at the back of the foot as in step 5. Remove tape from the sides of the hoof wall down to ground level, but leave the protective tape on the ground side. An outline of the first block’s perimeter will show on the second block. (Fig. 8) Use nippers and trim the second compressed block identical to the first.


Figure 9

10. Place the first layer on top of the second compressed layer. (Fig. 9) Be sure the molded side faces up (so it fits perfectly onto the horse’s foot). Attach the two compressed layers of Styrofoam together with two strips of duct tape. Use only enough tape to hold the layers together. (Fig 10) Do not allow tape to interfere with the foot imprint (frog and bars) on the first layer.

Figure 10

11. Re-tape the two attached layers onto the foot as described in steps 2 - 4. Apply a wrap of Elastikon™ over the duct tape to further secure the support blocks to the foot and provide traction on slippery surfaces.

Styrofoam support blocks and instructional video are available through:
Equine Digit Support Systems, Inc.
506 Hwy 115
Penrose, CO 81240

About the author:
Ellen Horowitz is a freelance writer and natural history instructor from Columbia Falls, Montana. She occasionally assists her farrier husband, but prefers to devote any spare time to exploring the mountains from the back of her saddle mule.