Although gastric ulcers are often associated with equine athletes, any horse can develop them. Ulcers sometimes have little, if any, outward effect on the horse’s health or performance, but they can cause constant pain, a condition called equine gastric ulcer syndrome. The effects of ulcers can include poor appetite, intermittent mild colics, weight loss, poor performance, a poor hair coat and a generally grumpy or aggressive attitude. Often, these signs are vague and easily chalked up to other causes.
Currently, two products, both containing the active ingredient omeprazole, are approved by the Food and Drug Administration to manage ulcers in horses: GastroGard is formulated to treat ulcers and UlcerGard is designed to prevent them. Several products and supplements are also available that do not contain omeprazole but are formulated to protect equine digestive health.
In addition, you can make a few simple adjustments to your horse’s lifestyle and feeding regimen to reduce his risk for developing ulcers. Here are some steps you can take:
1. Maximize the time your horse spends eating forage. A horse’s stomach produces acid continuously, even when he’s not eating. The longer a horse has to wait between meals, the more acid will accumulate in his stomach. In contrast, feeding a horse hay free choice or allowing him to graze on turnout around the clock keeps a steady supply of buffering saliva moving into the stomach to neutralize the acids. If your horse’s hay ration must be limited for health reasons, break it up into as many small meals as possible offered throughout the day. Or try offering the hay in a slow feeder, which limits the amount he can pull out in each bite. This will help his meals to last longer.
Alfalfa hay, in particular, may have a better buffering effect on stomach acids than grass hays. In one study, race-horses fed alfalfa had fewer and less severe ulcers than others fed brome grass hay. However, alfalfa is nutrient rich, so you’ll need to incorporate it into your horse’s diet slowly to reduce the chances of digestive upset.
2. Limit grains in the diet. Grains increase a horse’s risk of ulcers in several ways. A horse produces less saliva when he chews grains, so they lose some of the buffering effect that comes with consuming forages. Grains and other concentrates also stimulate the production of a hormone in the stomach that converts sugars and starches into volatile fatty acids, which can increase the damage to his stomach lining. If your horse needs more calories than he can get from forages alone, look for feeds that derive more calories from fats than from starches and sugar.
3. Keep routines consistent. Anything that adds stress to a horse’s life—including transport, training and competition—increases his risk of ulcers. Normally, these factors are associated more with the show and performance world, but any horse can experience stress in his home environment. Factors such as sudden changes in routines or altered herd dynamics when members are added or taken away can predispose a horse to ulcers. Take steps to limit change as much as possible in your horse’s life. Carry familiar feeds and adhere to comfortable routines when you travel, and introduce necessary changes gradually whenever possible.
4. Medicate with care. Many medications, especially nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as phenylbutazone, can damage the lining of the stomach and increase the risk of ulcers. NSAIDs are especially damaging when given in high doses or over too long a time. If your veterinarian prescribes medications to your horse, follow the directions carefully to stick to the recommended dosage and schedule. Monitor him carefully, and talk to your veterinarian if your horse develops any signs of stomach discomfort.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #441.