Founder is a really big deal in the horse world, for some horses it’s a death sentence. In most horses, it never should be. I have found that when people start talking about if a horse has foundered or is foundering etc, the information is varied and the understanding of what is going on or has gone on changes from person to person. As such, searching out information on founder can be confusing, the consensus tends to be though that the long term result of founder is laminitis.
Generally horses will founder either through trauma or diet problems, which could be considered a form of trauma too. When they do founder the consequences are long in resolving and require time and patience. It is rare to catch when the founder initiates and even catching it early is too late, the damage has likely been done.
The question is always been about how to detect when something is going wrong. To do this we may need to look into when you might catch a problem happening. As stated above, this can be trauma through injury, impact, concussion to the hoof and/or leg, or it can be a diet issue. For example getting into a big bag of grain or sweet feed, or perhaps just gorging on sweet sugar filled grass mid to late in the day after the sun has been shining on it and growing nicely after a rain. These things commonly cause what is called founder and in turn are important points to pay attention to for your horse’s health.
When founder hits you will likely never know it unless you take very close stats on your horse on a daily basis. You may be able to guess though based on if the hoof is hot and taking inventory of what has happened to the horse in the last 24 to 48 hours or so. If you suspect that some form of founder is going on, the first thing to do is cool the affected hooves down. This can be done by just cold water soaking, cold compresses, snow if you have it etc. Heat is inflammation, inflammation can cause damage and is happening for a reason. What you don’t want though is long term inflammation. When this does happen though, which happens to be a lot, the hoof reacts in a very interesting way and goes to protect itself.
While the perfect scientific reasoning has yet to be proven or completely explained, I believe the horse’s body is protecting itself when it gets founder and goes about adding more protection between the internal structure of the hoof and the hoof wall. When this does happen a layer of laminar gets created between the internals and the hoof wall, this steadily creeps down until you get complete hoof wall separation and a thick laminar wedge between the two and from here it’s dishing and flares to deal with. This stage is now labelled as laminitis. Some refer to it as “seedy toe” but that’s a different item as the laminar wedge created at this point would likely not be infected with fungus. It could be though.
So, once you have founder it’s quite difficult to catch and then slow it down unless you are on top of your horse health all the time. The damage can be minimized but it’s unknown exactly how much. No matter what it seems you end up dealing with some form of laminitis. Which in and of itself isn’t terribly bad, though it is bad, it just takes time.
The real problem is what damage was done internally with whatever happened (trauma, diet etc) and what the inflammation did. In the end, if you can grow out the hoof and get it to connect well again, then you likely don’t have any long term problems, if not, then there likely is. X-rays are good at this point and can give you an idea if there was any bone damage done or adjustment of bone to hoof displacement. If the laminitis is left on it’s own after foundering then you can get a lot of issues happening first beginning with flares and cracks in the hoof walls and then thin soles. All are recipes for longer and longer rehab and further risk of even more injury.
Founder is not the end of the world by any stretch of the imagination I believe. It’s a short time item (hopefully) that results in a long term problem. Caught and managed early though and it shouldn’t be one.