FACT SHEET – Feeding Horses Prone to Gastric Ulcers

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Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS) is a term which can span a wide spectrum of severity from a very slight inflammation of the stomach wall, right through to severe ulceration and bleeding. There is undoubtedly much more to learn about the causes, management and prevention of EGUS.  We currently often categorise the severity from 0-4, with 0 being a normal, healthy stomach wall, and 4 showing significant and widespread ulceration. The occurrence of EGUS is surprisingly high and whilst the exact number is unknown, some studies suggests that over 90% of racehorses, 60% of performance horses and up to 50% of leisure horses may suffer from gastric ulcers at some point in their lives.  

So we can understand how and why gastric ulcers occur, it is important to understand the anatomy of the horse’s stomach. The stomach has two distinct regions – the top half is known as the squamous or non-glandular region, the bottom half as the glandular or gastric.  As the gastric region is where enzymes that digest the horse’s food are excreted, this area tends naturally to be fairly well protected from acid attacking the stomach wall and therefore causing damage. The squamous or non-glandular region however, acts as a holding area for the food as it makes its way through and therefore has very little protection from acidity. Because of this, it relies entirely on a continuous flow of fibre coming in to help protect it. This helps to explain why we are all told we should feed our horses ‘ad-lib’ fibre – if they can continually pick at fibre, the stomach will continually have fibre moving through, therefore helping to protect it from ulceration. Additionally, the horse’s saliva helps to neutralise the acid in their stomach. Unlike humans, horses only salivate when they are physically eating, so the more time we can allow them to chew, the more saliva they will produce, and the less chance there is of them being prone to ulcers.  Traditionally we may have thought that ulcers in this Squamous region were caused by diets low in fibre but high in starch. However, it is now believed that exercise regimes can have a huge impact on ulcers in this area as intense exercise may cause “acid splash”. For this reason, it may often be suggested that you ensure the horse has had a small FIBRE based bucket feed (i.e. dried alfalfa) before exercise. This allows a protective mat of fibre to be formed, preventing the splash effect and therefore protecting the vulnerable squamous region.

The most common symptoms of gastric ulcers can include:

  • Weight loss – Decreased appetite
  • Recurrent colic – Decreased performance
  • Irritability – Teeth grinding

Whilst these symptoms can be indicative of many other issues, if several or all of them are being exhibited, it may be that your horse is prone to EGUS. The only way to get a definitive diagnosis is for your vet to perform an endoscopy where a thin optical cable is inserted through a nostril and down into the stomach so any signs of ulceration can be seen.

EGUS and Diet

For horses and ponies thought to be prone to EGUS, the best advice for any owner is to try and keep their horse as naturally as possible. Although not always possible, maximum amounts of time spent grazing is always beneficial. For any time spent stabled, ensure that ad-lib access to fibre is always available. Low calorie bagged forages with lower sugar and starch levels are ideal for horse and ponies that hold their weight well or are in light work, but for those that struggle to maintain condition or are working harder, a higher calorie forage would be a better choice. Choose one with BETA NOPS certification if you are competing so you have complete peace of mind. When thinking about your bucket feed, try to ensure starch levels are kept as low as possible. Choose products that are high in fibre, a complete fibre-based feed which contains a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals is often ideal. This type of feed, when fed at the correct rate, requires no addition of supplements or cereal-based products. Alfalfa is a proven acidity buffer, so a feed which contains alfalfa is often a good option for managing horses prone to EGUS.

Top Tips for Managing Horses and Ponies Prone to EGUS

  • Always supply adlib good quality fibre and as much turnout as possible.
  • Avoid high starch, cereal-based feeds.
  • Include alfalfa in the diet where possible.
  • Try to avoid putting your horse in stressful situations.
  • Prior to intense work, ensure your horse has had access to either a net of hay/haylage or a small fibre based bucket feed (ie alfalfa).