Rebound From Founder

By Ellen Horowitz

Nicker's radiographs. (A) Right front foot and (B) left front foot, both showing 18-degree separation of coffin bone from hoof wall; taken in August 1995. (C) Right front foot and (D) left front foot showing normal alignment of coffin bone taken March 1996. Photos provided by Equine Digit Support Systems, Inc.

The neighbor meant no harm. He had no idea the bushels of lawn clippings he dumped in the horse pasture next door were not treats, but poison. Nicker, a 12-year-old quarter horse, gorged on the freshly mowed greens. After consuming the highly fermentable feed, endotoxins worked through his system triggering a response that eventually manifested itself in his feet. Nicker was in acute laminitic distress. When his owner found him, the gelding was lying on the ground unwilling to get up due to severe pain in his feet. Noticing the remnant mounds of lawn cuttings, she knew what happened.

Brenda Osler realized she needed to act quickly to save her horse's life. Unable to reach the closest veterinarian in the small town of Eureka , Montana , she called her sister who recommended contacting Gene Ovnicek, a farrier internationally recognized for his work with foundered horses. Over the phone, he instructed Brenda what to do. (See "First Aid For Laminitis" in Natural Horse , Vol. 5, Issue 4).

Brenda located the first aid materials in her house: scraps of two-inch high-density blue Styrofoam (left over from a building project) and a roll of duct tape. With these items readily available she saved precious time by avoiding a lengthy trip to town. She taped the Styrofoam support blocks to Nicker's feet following Ovnicek's step-by-step instructions. It was crucial for the Styrofoam to remain securely in place. They would support the unstable coffin bone and make the horse more comfortable. Her veterinarian also recommended Bute to help counteract inflammation of the laminae. Two days later she applied a second layer of Styrofoam as instructed by Ovnicek. He told her that applying first aid for laminitis within the first 24 hours following the onset of the disease offered the greatest chances for recovery.

Ovnicek encouraged her to let the horse move around as much as he wanted once the Bute was reduced since "exercise is critical for blood flow and healing." He explained that on a normal foot, the laminae attach like Velcro to hold the coffin bone inside the hoof wall. During laminitis, the laminae separate and the coffin bone pulls away from the hoof wall. "Recent research indicates that when acute laminitis occurs, the bars and frog at the back part of the foot grow prolifically to offer support to the coffin bone and form an inner hoof wall. The Styrofoam when properly trimmed compliments the natural process by reducing the pain level during onset of the disease. This subsequently reduces the amount of pain medication needed, so it can be eliminated as quickly as possible. The Styrofoam support blocks also help restore blood flow and protect the coffin bones through stabilization," he said.

Approximately two weeks after the onset of laminitis, Nicker stabilized adequately for the 130-mile round-trip drive for x-rays by an equine veterinarian. Radiographs indicated that the coffin bones were dangerously close to coming through the bottom of all four feet. An 18-degree separation or rotation of the coffin bone from the inside hoof wall occurred. For many horses, a 10-degree rotation was considered life threatening because of damage to the coffin bone and its blood supply. In the past it was not uncommon to destroy such horses. A greater understanding of laminitis and treatment of the disease is saving lives, but Nicker wasn't out of the dark. He remained on Styrofoam support blocks for a full month before his pain subsided. Ovnicek then applied a special support "shoe". During fall and winter he reset the shoes three times as natural hoof capsule reconstruction took place.

Eight months after foundering, follow-up x-rays indicated that the coffin bone in each foot repositioned back to near normal. Ovnicek removed Nicker's special support shoes and replaced them with World Racing Plates. At this time Brenda gave the horse to her sister, Paula Wise, who originally recommended Ovnicek. He encouraged Paula to begin exercising the horse. She started with 30 minutes of light riding around the pasture each day. Eventually they progressed to two hours of open trail riding through the ponderosa pine-covered hills surrounding her home. Nicker's level of soundness indicated he could handle more aggressive riding.

Paula Wise on Nicker at O-Mok-See competition at Rocky Mountain Saddle Club, Columbia Falls , Montana on July 8, 2000 . Photos by Dave Roberts

A few months later (only one year after foundering) Paula became involved with O-Mok-See (a sport she describes as "games on horseback, patterned horse racing which involves about 35 events" including barrel racing and pole bending). She and Nicker competed in games that summer and he showed no signs of lameness. Through the fall and winter Paula rode him barefooted and commenced a rigorous training program by spring. "He's a horse with the heart of four or five horses, a horse willing to do what he's asked to do," said Paula . 

The following summer, Nicker won three high point buckles from three clubs and placed at the state level where he brought home plaques from two events. Since they began competing in O-Mok-See seven years ago, Nicker and Paula acquired more than18 buckles and 28 trophies among other state and national awards.

Nicker is now semi-retired from competition, but Paula rides him regularly and works cows with him during the summer months. Because of concern that he might bruise his feet on rocks and gravel, she chooses to shoe him during this brief season.

The objective for Nicker has been and continues to be to keep him barefooted. However, he was unable to compete and win in championship competition without the protection and support of shoes (WWRP). Nicker's farrier, Richard Clark, comments that each year his feet become stronger and more durable. He goes barefooted for eight months and could probably go without shoes.

Eight years have passed since Nicker's potentially life-threatening encounter with laminitis. Paula says she still thinks about it despite her horse's success as a competitive athlete. "You always live in fear of them foundering," she says. At the same time her advice to horse owners is not to give up. "Do not believe that laminitis or founder is the end of your horse. Don't let it be a mental block that life is over. It's not!"

Paula credits Nicker's remarkable comeback to her sister and Gene Ovnicek. However, Ovnicek quickly points out that Brenda's recognition of a serious problem, her immediate response with first aid, and Paula's vigilance in exercising Nicker are the reasons for his recovery. One thing is certain. Nicker's rebound from founder tells a story about hope -- how a horse owner can save the life of her very best friend.

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.