Understanding and preventing ulcers through horse feed

Equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS) is a common, yet painful issue for many horses. It is estimated that 25-50% of foals and 60-90% of adult horses suffer from this condition which crosses all breeds and disciplines.

Gastric ulcers occur when the inner layers of the stomach lining erode through gastric secretions which irritate the mucosal lining. This results in painful ulcers in the stomach that can lead to decreased performance in the afflicted horse.

Some of the symptoms of EGUS include:

  • Decrease in performance
  • Change in attitude
  • Poor appetite
  • Colic
  • Weight loss
  • Chronic pain

Horses that are stricken with EGUS do not thrive as well as others. Lack of interest in hay can lead to decreased body weight and temperament changes as the animal attempts to deal with the pain inflicted by the ulcers. Performance issues can arise, especially in horses who are shown regularly or others who are routinely challenged physically.

Many nutritionists believe that modern routines and horse feeds are at the root of the high incidence of EGUS.  Jack Grogan, Certified Nutritionist and Chief Science Officer for Uckele Health & Nutrition, believes that high grain diets are the cause for many horse ulcers. “High grain diets can contribute to excessive stomach acid release, and periods of fasting expose the horse’s stomach to gastric acid,” Grogan says, “For performance horses, diets high in grain are common, as are periods of intermittent feeding, especially before training. In addition, during heavy training the protective benefit of saliva is reduced and stress is intensified by the training, combined with the stress of travelling and performance to further increase the stomach tissue’s exposure to gastric acid.”

Pasture horses do not develop EGUS as frequently as their confined counterparts. Because they graze continually, instead of eating large amounts infrequently, saliva production is increased, which reduces the risk of stomach ulcers. Horses who feed upon hay or grain spend an inordinate amount of time where no saliva is being produced through chewing. Gastric acid secretions continue however, and the combination of these acids combined with insufficient roughage and a high grain diet can become a source of great pain for a horse’s stomach.

Preventing horse ulcers

The challenge, therefore, lies in keeping horses stabled while giving the opportunity to graze at will as opposed to having them rely strictly on man-made horse products. It is extremely difficult to provide the stabled horse with the ability to feed continually through the day to maintain proper gastric acid secretions. However, it is a benefit to the afflicted horse to attempt to recreate as similar an experience to living in the wild as is possible.

Managing stress response is another step that should be taken to reduce the risk of EGUS. Stall rest or putting a horse to pasture is an option for treatment, as is reduction of strenuous exercise or training. Transporting the animal less frequently is another treatment to consider. Adequate amounts of fresh water and a mineral/salt mix should also be provided to the horse at all times.

From a nutritional perspective, extra digestive support is a vital step in controlling horse ulcers. When one is feeding horses, keep in mind that ulcer-prone animals require a balanced diet that features ingredients which support a healthy equine digestive tract and prevent not only ulcers but laminitis as well.

Nutritional tips for healthy horses

  1. Polysaccharide complexes are an excellent buffering agent that inhibits acid production. Your veterinarian can prescribe this for afflicted horses.
  2. Sodium copper chlorophyllins can also be prescribed by a veterinarian and can be very soothing to the equine digestive tract while supporting adequate healing of painful tissues.
  3. Deglycyrrhizinated Licorice (DGL) is a safe and effective licorice extract that is available in the vitamin section which offers significant assistance in the healing of gastric membranes and support of ulcerated tissues.
  4. Rice bran oil extractives are an excellent way of soothing irritated guts while buffering the stomach acids. Rice bran oil for horses is loaded with fat. This is especially important for pregnant or lactating mares, performance horses that are worked vigorously or any other horse that requires a great amount of energy to thrive.
  5. Senior horse feed provides an older horse with a diet balanced to address the dietary issues of an aging equine. High quality feed not only compensates for elderly horses’ digestive ability but provides a higher fat content to raise energy levels.

As you can see, equine gastric ulcer syndrome is a painful condition that affects many horses and colts. However, there are a variety of treatments available to combat this syndrome including increased grazing conditions, stress management procedures and high quality feed designed to assist in maintaining healthy acid production. Although EGUS is a common and painful condition, there is no need for confined horses to suffer needlessly with so many treatment options available.