Feeding Horses or Ponies Prone to Gastric Ulcers

Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS) refers to lesions of the tissue lining the stomach in the non-glandular area, which is generally thought to be related to diet, exercise and stress. Although gastric ulcers might seem like a recent phenomenon they’ve probably been afflicting horses for decades, it’s just that more vets now have long enough endoscopes to view the horse’s stomach and can see the ulcers. As more research has been carried out, our understanding of the severity of the problem has increased. Estimates suggest that around 40% of leisure horses, 60% of competition and 90% of racehorses could be affected by ulcers.

What causes gastric ulcers?

There are several factors that contribute to ulcers. A lack of fibre is one of the major causes as the horse’s natural trickle grazing would normally provide protection against ulcers – the presence of fibrous material in the stomach acts as a physical barrier literally stopping the acid coming into contact with the stomach lining. Constant chewing produces saliva that helps to neutralise acid produced in the stomach. Any horse or pony that has restricted access to forage can be vulnerable to ulcers, which is why it is a problem that can affect racehorses as well as good doers.

Focal ulcers

focal ulcers

Squamous ulcers

squamous ulcers

Photos by Rachel Conwell BVetMed CertEM(IntMed) Dip ECEIM MRCVS, EquiMed Referrals Ltd

Other factors that contribute to ulcers include exercise and stress. It is thought that working at high intensity, particularly on an empty stomach, allows the acidic stomach contents to be pushed up into the non-glandular region. If intense exercise is prolonged or repeated consistently then ulcers can occur. Studies suggest that horses that are stressed are also vulnerable to ulcers even those turned out on pasture 24/7. It is therefore important that good management, as well as good diet, is used in the fight against ulcers.

Could my horse have ulcers?

Not all horses and ponies show classic symptoms of ulcers, but the following are indicators that suggest you may want to ask your vet to check for ulcers:

  • grumpy behaviour particularly when girthing up· stereotypic behaviour such as cribbing or wind-sucking· poor condition· weight loss· repeatedly suffers from ‘gassy’ colic after eating· starts to eat but keeps stopping· reluctance to eat

Managing a horse prone to ulcers and stomach upsets

There are various antacid medications that your vet may prescribe and alongside these it is important to feed and manage your horse or pony in a way that reduces the risk of ulcers recurring. The following tips should be implemented:

  • Feed plenty of forage. This promotes chewing and naturally regulates the level of acidity in the stomach.
  • Use low calorie forages for good doers to provide chew time without the weight gain.
  • Reduce the use of cereals or - even better - remove them completely from the ration. Cereals create more acidic conditions in the gut.
  • Use higher energy forages to supply energy without the need to use cereals. For example Healthy Tummy provides 11.5MJ/kg of slow-release energy which is the equivalent to a conditioning or competition mix.
  • Include alfalfa in the ration. Independent research at Texas A&M University has shown alfalfa is a natural buffer to acidity due to its protein and calcium content.
  • Exercise intensity may need to be reduced to allow recovery from ulcers.
  • Turn out as much as possible to supply fibre, relaxation and avoid any unnecessary stressful situations.

Equine Gastroscopy

The first video shows the gastroscopy process with some minor ulcers visible. The second shows a horse with grade three ulceration.

Videos courtesy of Towcester Vet Centre Equine Clinic

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