Researchers have estimated that 90% of racehorses, 70% of endurance horses, and 60% of show horses are affected by gastric ulcers. This means that many performance horses in western disciplines are affected by the condition as well.
Because so many performance horses tend to develop ulcers at some point in their career, it’s important for owners to understand how to provide support for these horses, as well as how to prevent ulcers in horses who are at risk but may not be affected yet.
Causes of ulcers in horses
Ulcers occur as the result of erosion of the lining of the stomach due to prolonged exposure to the normal acid in the stomach. In adult horses, ulcers are primarily a management condition associated with three main factors: feeding practices, housing practices, and stress. In fact, stall confinement, alone, can cause the development of ulcers.
Anatomically, the horse’s stomach is quite small compared to the rest of the digestive system. Food enters and exits in about 30 minutes, depending on the feedstuff. When the horse is ingesting small meals (aka, grazing) continually throughout the day, saliva is produced which acts as a buffer against stomach acid and the presence of feedstuffs in the stomach protects the vulnerable stomach lining. When the horse goes for long periods of time without eating, there is not enough saliva or bulk feed to neutralize the stomach acid, however.
The stomach is also divided into two sections: the bottom glandular part secretes acid but also has a protective coating to prevent damage from that acid. The top non-glandular part, where stomach contents get mixed, does not have the same protection from acid, and this is the most commonly affected region of the stomach.
Aside from long periods without food, environmental and physical stress can increase a horse’s chance for developing ulcers as well. Training, intense exercise, showing, hauling, and mixing new groups of horses are all contributing factors.
Finally, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) decrease the production of the stomach’s protective mucus layer, making the horse more susceptible to ulcers. These medications should never be given long-term without seeking alternative options.
Symptoms of ulcers in horses
Signs of ulcers in horses are often subtle, but they include:
- Poor appetite;
- Refusing grain meals, but eating hay normally;
- Attitude changes;
- Decreased performance;
- Poor body condition;
- Poor hair coat;
- Weight loss;
- Excessive time spent lying down;
- Low-grade colic; and
- Loose feces.
If you notice any of the above symptoms in your horse, it’s best to have him evaluated by your veterinarian as soon as possible.
How gastric ulcers are diagnosed
Though a tentative diagnosis can be made based on clinical signs alone, the only way to definitively diagnose gastric ulcers is through gastroscopy, which involves placing an endoscope into the stomach and looking at its surface. Most veterinarians can easily perform this procedure and evaluate the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine for ulcers. It should be noted that hindgut ulcers, however, cannot be observed through gastroscopy. Instead, they must be diagnosed through symptoms and blood work.
Treatment for ulcers in horses
Equine ulcer treatment should target removal of predisposing factors as well as reducing acid production in the stomach. Horses should be allowed free-choice access to grass or hay, have more turnout time where they can socialize with other horses, and eat more frequent, smaller meals as opposed to two larger feedings. Decreasing grain and replacing it with high-fat feed or more high-quality hay is also helpful.
Medication to decrease acid production may be necessary for horses showing clinical signs or when predisposing factors cannot be removed, such as with horses in race training or those with intense showing schedules. The only FDA approved drug to treat gastric ulcers is omeprazole and this must be prescribed by your veterinarian.
How to prevent ulcers in horses
Since so many performance horses are prone to developing ulcers, prevention is of utmost importance. Many preventative strategies can also be used to treat existing ulcers. Managing and feeding horses in alignment with their natural tendencies is key. Since an empty stomach sets the horse up for ulcer formation, ensure that your horse has forage to eat both day and night. If the horse cannot be put on pasture, hay should be fed on a frequent basis.
Adding some alfalfa into your horse’s diet can also be helpful. In fact, researchers believe that alfalfa hay is more efficient at buffering against stomach ulcers than grass hay, due to the higher level of calcium and protein in alfalfa.
Here are a few more management and feeding tips which can help prevent as well as treat ulcers in horses naturally:
Use slow feed hay bags or feeders. This is especially important for horses without pasture access as this type of feeder will ensure that your horse won’t go for long periods of time without forage. A number of different slow feed hay bags and feeders are available on the market, but find one that suits your horse’s needs, with holes big enough to pull hay from without causing frustration (which can also cause stress).
Don’t exercise your horse on an empty stomach. Exercise, especially if it’s intense, increases stomach acid production. The acid is then ‘sloshed’ around, continually coating the stomach. As a general rule, feed hay or allow pasture turnout before exercise and then feed grain or other concentrates after your horse recovers from the workout.
Make sure your performance horse also gets time to just be a horse. This is important since the stress of hauling, intense exercise, and competition, in general, can contribute to ulcers. Allow for plenty of turnout time, forage, and friends. If the horse must be stalled, ensure that the horse can see other horses he socializes with.
Don’t feed large meals of grains or other non-structural carbohydrates. Feeding large meals increases the production of volatile fatty acids in the stomach, predisposing your horse to ulcers. Instead feed smaller, more frequent grain meals and focus on providing adequate access to structural carbohydrates like forage and hay.
Don’t give NSAIDs long term. As noted before, bute, banamine, or ketoprofen all decrease the production of the stomach’s protective mucous layer, which can make your horse much more susceptible to ulcers. Instead, talk to your veterinarian about alternative options.
Add probiotics such as EQ Probiotic Pellets/Extra Strength into your horse’s feeding program to keep the digestive system healthy. Supplementing with Athletic Formula (Power Booster) also provides digestive enzymes, improves nutrient utilization, supports the gastric mucosa, and maintains gut flora in the digestive tract.
Yes, gastric ulcers are all too common in western performance horses, but knowing the causes as well as prevention and support strategies can help keep your horse ulcer-free and performing to his maximum potential.