Gastric ulcers are a commonly occurring issue in domesticated horses which can cause severe pain, behavioural changes and reduced performance.
Although racehorses are more likely to develop ulcers, any horse or pony can be affected by them, so it’s vital that owners can spot the signs.
In this guide, we run through the common symptoms and causes of stomach ulcers in horses, as well as offering advice on what to feed horses with ulcers.
Horse Ulcer Symptoms
Only veterinarians can officially diagnose gastric ulcers although, as an owner, it is good to be aware of some of the possible signs.
Symptoms of horse ulcers are usually nonspecific and may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Intermittent or low-grade colic
- Attitude changes such as defensiveness when being saddled, avoidance of other horses or increased aggressive behaviour
- Decreased performance
- Weight or muscle loss
- Dull coat
- Increased stereotypic behaviours such as cribbing or weaving
- Grinding teeth
- Reluctance to bend, extend or collect
- Difficulty laying down or laying down more often
- Lack of energy or stamina
- Acting anxious or restless usually accompanied by behaviours suggesting physical discomfort such shifting weight, headshaking, tail-swishing or chewing when not eating
- Flehmen Response
- Excessive salivation or drooling
Horse Ulcer Causes
There are a number of factors that can increase a horse’s risk of developing ulcers; we explore these below.
Diet and Feeding
Equine ulcers occur when the protective lining in a horse’s stomach is compromised, causing irritation and inflammation. Unlike humans, who only produce stomach acid when they’re eating, horses produce stomach acid all the time. When a horse eats, the stomach’s acidity is neutralised by the food and saliva – which is why it’s best for them to eat throughout the day. The risk of ulcers developing increases when horses are subjected to prolonged periods without food.
By simply owning horses, we’re removing them from their natural habitat where they continuously consume and digest small amounts of fibrous foods throughout the day – which keeps stomach acid from attacking the lining of the equine stomach.
Diets high in concentrates can also increase the risk of ulcers. Because concentrates are quicker to chew, they don’t produce as much saliva as hay, haylage, HorseHage or other similar feeds do. They also empty out of the stomach faster than forage, leaving the horse’s stomach empty for longer periods of time – and therefore susceptible to the development of ulcers.
Exercise and Discipline
All domesticated horses are susceptible to ulceration however, thoroughbred racehorses are most likely to be affected. Analysing the prevalence of gastric ulceration by discipline, researchers found “the highest prevalence of ESGD occurs in Thoroughbred racehorses with 37% of untrained horses affected, increasing to 80–100% within 2–3 months of race training”.
Research has shown that exercise increases the production of gastric acid and decreases blood flow in the GI tract. During exercise, the acidic fluid in the horse’s stomach splashes and exposes the upper, more vulnerable part of the stomach to an acidic pH.
In addition to this, frequent travel and changes in environment, which are inevitable for competition horses, can increase stress levels contributing to the increased risk of stomach ulcers.
Horses that already have ulcers also experience decreased blood flow to the stomach when exercising, which can seriously impact the healing process.
Stress reduces appetite in horses so there is less of a buffer between gastric acid and the sensitive stomach lining. Stressed or nervous horses also move around more (pacing or exhibiting similar behaviours) which, like exercise, leads to acid coming into contact with the more sensitive part of the stomach.
When exposed consistently to stressors, horses also produce cortisol at higher levels, which indirectly increases the production of hydrochloric acid, heightening the risk of gastric ulceration further.
Best Feed For Horses With Ulcers
As well as seeking treatment from a veterinarian and reducing other risk factors such as stress, it’s advised that the diet of horses with ulcers is reviewed. Here are a few tips for feeding horses with stomach ulcers.
- Adequate fibre intake is a core component of maintaining a healthy digestive tract.
- Never allow a horse to fast for longer than 4 hours
- As we know, saliva helps to neutralise stomach acid levels, but it is only produced when a horse is actually chewing. Increasing the amount of time horses spend chewing also increases the amount of acid-neutralising saliva they produce, which in turn reduces the likelihood of ulceration.
- Provide high quality forage ad lib where possible. Low calorie forage works best for good doers as it gives them plenty of time to chew, without risking unnecessary weight gain.
- Horses are best suited to consuming small amounts of feed at a time, at multiple points throughout the day. If your horse can’t have continuous access to high-quality forage to graze on as and when they please, make sure their daily feed is split up into several small meals daily as opposed to just two large meals.
- If your horse does require a bucket feed incorporate a high fibre chaff for an additional source of fibre and to increase chew time.
- Forage is tougher than concentrate feed, such as cereals, which means horses take longer to finish eating it.
- Amongst other health benefits, Alfalfa has naturally high levels of protein and calcium, which helps to buffer against acidity and reduce the likelihood of ulcer development.
- Starch is associated with an increased risk of gastric ulcers, so it’s best to limit your horse’s intake of this and opt for a high-fibre diet instead.
- As we’ve explained, exercising a horse on an empty stomach can lead to the development of stomach ulcers, so it’s advisable to feed your horse a handful of chaff or forage or give them a haynet roughly 20-25 minutes before exercise begins.
- On the topic of exercise, you should also consider lessening the intensity of your horse’s exercise whilst ulcers are healing.
- Finally, always provide continuous access to fresh drinking water, as a lack of water has been linked to the occurrence of ulcers.
Reduce the Risk of Ulcers with HorseHage
Browse our range of high-quality HorseHage forage and Mollichaff horse chaffs to give your horse the best dietary protection against stomach ulcers or get in touch with our expert team for more advice.