Living conditionsTheories and causesTreatment and prevention

Winter laminitis

Winter … and the whole country is frozen solid. The ground freezes over at night and in some places the mercury hardly rises above zero during the day. Whilst most horses don’t encounter any problems in these conditions, other horses suffer from painful hooves and stumble through their pasture or paddock. What is going on?

Foot-sore on frozen, rutted ground

For horses that don’t have healthy hooves in the first place and won’t walk easily on hard, uneven surfaces, the sensitivity is easy to explain. For example, they may have only recently been un-shod, or they may have to deal with some other, unsolved hoof problem. If you can’t offer these horses a softer ground to walk on, it is advisable to help them by using hoof boots. This way they will keep on moving, which is beneficial for the blood circulation in the hoof and thus aids their recovery. On top of that, it helps to prevent bruising, abscessing and other sole- and frog-related problems.

Acute laminitis?

If your horse shows obvious clinical signs of acute laminitis (apart from another explainable sensitivity) try to find out whether the problem could have been caused by food. More food, different types of feed, a new batch of hay with a higher sugar content or a break-in in the feed barn may be the cause. Winter grass can also play a role. If your horse has access to pasture, remove it from the grass. On cold, sunny days the sugar in the grass can rise to dangerously high levels for insulin-resistant horses. Give the horse only hay with a low sugar content (<10%) on a temporary basis. If you do not know the sugar content, you can always soak and rinse your hay to partly remove the sugars. Provide a salt lick and give a magnesium supplement. Call your hoof care provider and your vet.

Winter laminitis

Another explanation for the sore feet of your horse during the winter cold is what we call “winter laminitis”. However, this is in fact not a `true` laminitis; something like ‘winter-related hoof pain syndrome’ would be a better name. Suddenly, plummeting temperatures cause the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that has a vasoconstrictive (narrowing) effect on blood vessels. The blood flow to, and in the hoof decreases. In addition, a healthy body produces more thyroid hormones in the fight against the cold. This also reduces blood flow to the hooves. The reduced circulation causes pain; pain that won`t be helped by the horse walking on frozen, bumpy ground. Pain, and the accompanying stress response, leads to an increased cortisol production, and this creates a vicious cycle.

Note: Walking on hard, frozen ground can give the last push to horses that already have a compromised lamellar connection, causing the horse to develop traumatic laminitis.

One of the disturbing effects of winter laminitis is that it often appears to strike out of nowhere. Nevertheless, if you are aware to the warning signs, early intervention is possible. Supporting blood flow can help protect your horse before disaster strikes.

Horses at risk

Especially horses with PPID (formerly wrongly called ‘Cushing’s syndrome’) or EMS (Equine Metabolic Syndrome/insulin resistance) often suffer from winter laminitis. Horses with damaged blood vessels because they have been laminitic in the past also run a higher risk. All preventative and curative measures that you take for these types of horses will by definition turn out to be beneficial with regard to winter laminitis.

Keep your winter laminitic horse warm

Although under normal circumstances most horses will do well without blankets, you could consider making an exception in this situation. A winter laminitic horse will definitely benefit from being kept warm. A good wind- and waterproof blanket with a fleece underneath, transport protectors with fleece lining and hoof boots can make a difference. A good water- and windproof shelter, with the entrance facing southwest, is indispensable. Keep an eye on the body temperature of your horse during the day. When the sun breaks through and the wind stops, the horse can suddenly become too hot under its blanket.

Keep your winter laminitic horse warm


Hyperlipidemia (the presence of elevated fat concentrations in the blood) causes vasoconstriction and thereby contributes to winter laminitis. Food shortage – even if it is brief – can lead to hyperlipidemia. All the more reason to provide enough hay.


If you can provide your horse a soft surface (for example an indoor riding arena) it is good to let the horse move around there quietly, optionally on hoof boots. This stimulates circulation to, and in the hooves.


Avoid any form of stress. The body produces more cortisol in times of stress.

Medications, supplements and therapies

The veterinarian may prescribe L-arginine. This amino acid has a vasodilatory (widening) effect on blood vessels. The herbal therapist may prescribe cinnamon, rhodiola (golden root), ginger root, or jiaogulan. These herbs have vasodilatory properties. Ginger root also inhibits the production of cortisol and has both a stress-reducing and an analgesic effect. Jiaogulan also supports vascular nitric oxide production, which improves blood delivery to the extremities and hooves. Do not start using these herbs at random without an herbal therapist telling you the correct dosage and informing you about possible interactions with any other medications your horse receives.

Manual lymphatic drainage stimulates blood circulation. You can also give your horse a massage yourself. Because of his aching feet his entire body may be tensed. The relaxation and improved circulation that a massage brings, will have an overall positive effect.

Blood flow to the hoof can be stimulated with rosemary and juniper oil. Only use pure essential oils. Mix ten drops of rosemary oil and five drops of juniper oil with 100 ml. jojoba oil. Massage the entire leg up to, and including the coronary band on a daily basis. Do not treat the hoof itself, however. The essential oils might dry out the hoof.

Time may help to heal the ill of “winter laminitis” too; the clinical signs and the suffering will gradually decrease when weather conditions get better. Circulation improves and pain will be reduced.


This article has been written together with Heleen Davies. She is the translator of the English version of ‘Laminitis: understanding, cure, prevention’, and the author of the Dutch website


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