Horses are naturally grazing animals whose digestive systems are designed to allow them to eat all day long. Unfortunately modern methods of horse care overlook this natural process which causes many domestic horses to suffer a variety of digestive disorders that result because of this unnatural feeding process.
One of the most common problems is ulcers. In fact, studies indicate approximately sixty percent of horses are under treatment for ulcers. Those horses that only receive horse feed twice a day and are left in a stall all day without food are at a high risk of developing ulcers. While the symptoms can vary, the most common ones include the following:
- The horse may be girthy
- Picky eating
- Signs of nervousness
- Tucked up gut
- Sore back
- Highly sensitive when he is being groomed
- Has a tendency to bite
- Lame in the hind end
- Pinning his ears while he is being saddled
- Stools may be loose or water
- Hard keepers
- Signs of pain
- Losing weight
The health of the stomach and hind hut are crucial for optimal horse health. If a horse is in pain because of ulcers it can cause problems during training. Ulcers are often a big problem for performance horse because of the stress that results because of the required travel between barns for shows. Even ordinary horses can suffer stress because of relocation, being pressured to perform or even losing one of his horse buddies. This stress puts a horse more at risk for the development of ulcers. Environmental issues also play a role in horse health with nervous horses being the most likely candidates for developing ulcers.
Horses can develop ulcers in either the stomach or the hind gut, but the problem is the hind gut is often overlooked. This part of the digestive system is extremely vital to digestive health because most of the horse’s energy and nutrients are obtained through the fermenting process that occurs in the hind gut.
A great deal of research has been conducted that confirms the existence of hind gut ulcers. The most common cause is the use of NSAIDs. These anti-inflammatory products work to reduce pain and inflammation by blocking prostaglandins, a chemical that is present in both damaged and healthy tissue; the NSAIDs do not differentiate between the two. The healthy tissue control mucus production and blood flow, and when the NSAIDs block the prostaglandins, the mucus lining of the intestinal tract is damaged which results in the formation of ulcers in the right dorsal colon. These horses will have increased sensitivity on the right side below or in the region of the loins and flank area. It is essential to avoid the use of medications such as NSAIDs, antibiotics, wormers and some other prescribed medicines because these may sometimes interrupt the microbial population in the hind gut and cause a variety of digestive upsets including ulcers.
In order to ensure optimum horse health and keep him free of ulcers, a proper feeding program is essential. If your horse has ulcers, it doesn’t matter how much hay you provide; he will still not eat very well because of the pain in his stomach. The first thing you need to do is address his problem with ulcers in order to ensure he will once again enjoy his horse feed and will no longer be such a picky eater. Horses that spend a substantial amount of time in the stable without access to pastures should be provided with high quality grass hay all day long. You may also want to provide your horse with a small amount of alfalfa because of the calcium content that will help absorb any excess acids. Horses that have ulcers as well as those who may be acid prone should have access to hay all day long.
If you do nothing but treat the symptoms by providing your horse with antacids and don’t make any dietary changes in his diet, you will disturb the natural digestive process and thus cause the stomach to produce more acid. This will make it seem like your horse is better, but the symptoms will soon return, and as long as you continue this same cycle the symptoms will continue coming back. A complete recovery requires doing what is necessary to heal the stomach and/or hind gut.