Question:I have a 5-year-old horse who is in training for reining. About a month ago, he started getting really picky about his food. He eats, but unlike all horses when they see grain, he just eats a bit or two, then leaves it, but in the morning when I feed it is usually all consumed. I realize he is under stress in his training, but I am also concerned about his eating. He is in very good condition, very fit, not skinny, but not heavy either. Also I have noticed just within the last month he is switching his tail in protest. When he is asked to bend, take a lead, etc., he switches his tail, which he had not done before. After he gets going he doesn’t do it. Could he have an ulcer? How can I tell?
Answer: Ulcers are very common in horses and can be a bit difficult to diagnose at times. Many horses will keep a good weight and shiny coat, yet have ulcers inside. Some horses will eat well yet not gain weight properly. Other horses just show signs of discomfort and no signs of poor eating habits or weight problems.
Horses, by nature, are herd animals that are supposed to graze 20 hours a day with their friends. So, when we put them in a stall or in solo turnout for a short time each day, we have changed their natural behavior drastically. Add to that training that can be stressful, and the equation leads to ulcers and other behavior problems. Feed high in sugar (sweet feed) or too high in protein (depends on the breed and metabolism as to how much they need) can contribute. Horses need roughage to eat with just enough grain to keep their weight normal. Many horses are overfed on grain and given only a small amount of hay.
Pain also creates stress and can contribute to ulcers or cause some of the behavior problems you describe. Pain in a young horse can come from many sources, one of the primary is poor saddle fit. Many trainers use the same saddle on every horse and will tell you it fits just fine. The reality is different as we have talked about in other Ask the Vet sessions, including Ask the Vet: Low Back Saddle Fit.
Young horses are often asked to work harder than their muscles and joints are ready for. Perhaps the work is too demanding. Many young horses already have joint pain, especially hock pain in reiners. Your job as the owner is to find out where the source of pain is–it may be the intestinal tract or it may be the musculoskeletal system. Have a veterinary acupuncturist check your horse for pain and ulcers, since acupuncture is an excellent way to treat both. A qualified chiropractor can help with the pain aspect (Alternative Healthcare Organization Links).
To check a horse for ulcers you can have your vet look into the stomach with an endoscope, but that will only tell you about stomach ulcers. Many horses have ulcers in other parts of the digestive tract that you cannot see. There is a new test your vet can get for you that looks for traces of blood in a fecal sample (www.succeedfbt.com).
There are many ways to treat ulcers. The problem is, if the environment that created the ulcers does not change ulcers will likely return. So as long as the horse remains with the stress (pain, training, lack of turnout, etc.) he may need some support.
The drug omeprazole in various forms can be useful, if expensive, to get past a crisis, but often needs to be redosed as the stress continues. It is better to use a natural or herbal supplement for ongoing support. Companies such as Hilton Herbs and Equilite make excellent products. The company that makes the fecal blood test, Succeed, also makes an excellent long term support product. Probiotic products can help, but some do not contain all that many active good bacterial cultures, so look for companies that have the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) seal of approval. Papaya concentrate can also be a useful tool, but should not be used in horses who are prone to being fat or insulin resistant since it is high in sugar.
It is best to avoid products that have buffering agents such as calcium carbonate, since these raise the pH (make the stomach more alkaline). The stomach of a horse, or human for that matter, is supposed to be acidic so it can digest protein and absorb six key minerals including calcium. When the stomach becomes less acidic, mineral absorption goes down. Long term use of antacids in humans has been shown through extensive research to cause many health conditions including poor digestion and bone problems. This research has not been done in horses.
Increase turnout time, preferably with grass to eat and company to play with. Find ways to make his life more fun.
Dr. Joyce Harman is a veterinarian and respected saddle-fitting expert certified in veterinary acupuncture and veterinary chiropractic; she is also trained in homeopathy and herbal medicine. Her Harmany Equine Clinic is in northern Virginia. Visit her online shop.
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