Q & A Equine Ulcers
Q: Any ideas on why a long yearling in excellent condition would eat manure? Not his own manure, but manure of other horses out of the cart when I am cleaning stalls. He is fed grain and alfalfa hay twice a day. We started him on pro-biotics and pre-biotics last week, but haven’t noticed a response yet. This is a new development within the last month. Could this be caused by ulcers? He really doesn’t exhibit many other ulcer symptoms.
A: The presence of ulcers or other digestive upsets could cause horses to eat odd things. Saliva produced by chewing helps ease the pain in the stomach. In a recent research trial on horses with documented ulcers, we observed most of the horses eating bedding and feces when hay was not present in their stall. Keeping hay in front of this yearling would be highly recommended. In addition, feeding a balanced diet is essential for the horse’s health. Lack of a balanced diet has been known to cause horses to eat feces.
Q: We have show horses that are kept in stalls during the day and night. Our stalls have been much more messy and hard to clean due to the looseness in the horses’ stools. We feed about 8 lbs. of grain once a day in the morning and we feed hay in the afternoon and evening. I would like to see our horses have “horse-apple” like piles. Wondering if we have problems with equine ulcers? What can we do to correct this problem?
A: Whether or not your horses are experiencing ulcers is hard to say. However, there are a number of things that can cause loosen stools in horses. A couple of management tips would be splitting grain feeding into two or more feedings, typically not to exceed 5 lbs. of grain per feeding. Secondly, stalled horses require a lot of hay as the basis for their diet. Keeping hay in front of them throughout the day and night is one of the best methods to prevent equine ulcers. The chewing process produces saliva, a natural buffer or antacid, which is the horse’s primary defense against ulcers or gastric upset. Full-time access to hay helps horses maintain weight, helps relieve stress and boredom and typically helps improve the stool quality.
Q: Is it true that alfalfa hay may be better for training horses than grass hay?
A: Horses in training and competition are prone to equine ulcers. Researchers at the University of Tennessee, University of Kentucky and Texas A&M have shown that alfalfa hay was more efficient in buffering horses’ stomachs than grass hay. Why is this important? Horse ulcers can be caused by over production of gastric acids in the stomach. Horses produce saliva when chewing hay. Saliva is a natural buffer, offsetting stomach acid in horses. When horses consume grass hay or alfalfa hay, saliva is produced buffering the horse’s stomach. Research has shown that since alfalfa hay typically contains more calcium than grass hay, alfalfa hay would provide more buffering capacity than grass hay. So, horses in training might benefit from some alfalfa hay.
Q: As a thoroughbred trainer, we primarily exercise horses early in the morning before their first meal. I have heard some trainers talk about changing their training program in order to exercise after their morning feeding. Why is that?
A: A major cause of equine ulcers is exercise. The lower portion of a horse’s stomach contains a protective coating of tissue that helps protect the stomach from gastric acids. However, the upper portion of the stomach is not protected. As a horse exercises, acids get pushed to the less protected portion of the stomach. The problem is even more apparent when the stomach is empty and free of contents. The upper regions of the stomach lining are primarily where equine gastric ulcers occur. Providing some hay prior to exercise reduces the amount of “sloshing” that occurs by the gastric acids in the stomach.
Q: Are antacids or buffers effective for preventing equine ulcers?
A: There are many antacids and buffers available for horses. Antacids with buffering characteristics are used to neutralize or offset gastric acids much the same as they are used in humans. Buffering agents work quickly, supplying temporary relief lasting for only short periods, typically for 15 to 45 minutes. In most cases, antacids are fed to horses with the grain ration. There may be some buffering taking place at the time of feeding, but antacids provide little long-term buffering effect between feedings.
Q: Our best show horse hasn’t been acting or performing well. Our vet thinks he might have ulcers. What are we doing that might be causing this problem?
A: Equine ulcers are more common than one might expect. The stresses of hauling, training and competition can have a huge impact on the horse’s health. For example, horses solely on pasture rarely show symptoms associated with gastric ulcers.
- Conversely, stalled horses fed higher levels of grain and with limited access to long stem hay are much more prone to gastric ulcers.
- The stress of transportation and long periods of confinement in trailers has been shown to increase the incidence of stomach ulcers.
- Traditionally, performance horses are exercised and compete on an empty stomach. This can increase digestive upset and lead to ulcers.
- Horses are often stalled individually in artificial environments, increasing the general stress level of an animal, which has the natural instinct to move and graze continuously.
- Diet can also have a major impact on a horse’s gastric health. Feed grains increase the amount of gastric acids produced in the horse’s stomach. Hay and pasture causes larger amounts of saliva to be produced. Saliva is the horse’s primary defense against digestive upset and ulcers resulting from acid production.
- The use of Non-Steroid Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAID), especially at high levels and for prolonged periods of time, can trigger gastric upset and ultimately lead to severe bouts of gastric ulcers.
Q: What are signs of gastric stomach ulcers in horses?
A: Many horses in training and competition are continuously healing and redeveloping gastric stomach ulcers, so proper management of horses under stress should not be overlooked. Symptoms associated with equine gastric ulcers include:
- Loss of appetite – horses eat less and leave unfinished meals.
- Horses show an interest in eating hay and leaving grain behind.
- Attitude changes including bad temperament, aggressiveness and cranky nervous behavior.
- May act cinchy or tender in the flank and exhibit colic-like behavior.
- Drop in performance. Horses lack focus, consistency, willingness and stamina.
- Loss of body condition and muscle.
Q: We keep horses for the pleasure of trail riding. We have a mare that is great some days and has behavior issues at other times. Some of our friends have been talking about equine ulcers. Is it possible this could be some of her problem?
A: Even though the highest prevalence of equine ulcers is found in racehorses and horses in competition, any horse can be affected. Studies at Iowa State University have shown that horses undergoing recreational activities, such as trailering and stall confinement, show significantly higher incidence of symptoms consistent with gastric stomach ulcers. According to Dr. Scott McClure∗ at Iowa State University, even backyard pleasure horses and trail horses may undergo stressful activities that may predispose them to gastric upset. General activities, such as hauling, training and competition, can have a huge impact on the horse’s health.
Q: How long does it take for a horse to develop ulcers?
A: Horses under extreme stress can develop ulcers in just a few days. With the right conditions, we have seen horses develop grade 1 and 2 level ulcers in less than a week.
Q: Can the type of feed or grain have an impact on horse ulcers?
A: Both the type of feed (grain) and the amount of feed fed can have a significant impact on horse ulcers. For example, feeds containing high starch grains, such as corn, wheat or milo, result in more acid production in the stomach. An alternative to feeding high starch containing feeds would be feeding more hay, selecting feeds that contain lower-starch ingredients and selective use of non-grain energy sources, such as fat.
Q: As a breeder of warm blood horses, we sometimes experience some problems with diarrhea in our foals. Our vet thinks these foals may be experiencing some problems with ulcers. Can foals get ulcers and what can we do to eliminate them?
A: Nursing foals are susceptible to dietary challenges, as well as stress. Nursing foals typically nurse every few minutes. Ulcer problems in foals are often associated with young and poorer milking mares. Anything that results in restricted or inconsistent milk consumption by foals can result in gastric upset and ulcers. In addition, under-fed foals often start eating various types of solid food, hay or other things that don’t react favorably in the foal’s stomach. At the first sign of the foal’s interest in solid food, we recommend providing foals a digestible source of nutrients, such as Foals First Starter & Creep.
Eliminating equine ulcers in foals is challenging. The two main options would be products that reduce stomach acid production or that a product that enhances gastric tissue repair, but prevention is still a primary focus.
Q: How can I prevent the problem in the future? Can you please suggest what has worked for you or what would be the best solution? Thanks so much!
are several treatment and management options to consider:
- Feed Free-choice hay. Chewing hay increases saliva production, which is a great natural buffer.
- Provide Alfalfa hay as a part of the hay offered. Alfalfa contains higher calcium and magnesium, which are also natural buffers.
- Feed less starch calories and more fat calories in your grain
- Reduce stress by providing turn-out time
for stalled horses
- Use of products that reduce acid production in the horse’s stomach.
- Other products, such as antacids or buffering agents, may provide some short-term benefits when fed with grains.
Q: I know there is a tie between the amounts of starch in a horse’s diet and ulcers, but is there a proven association between soybean meal and ulcers in horses?
A: We are not aware of any research linking soybean meal and equine ulcers. There is a definite link between high-starch grains and equine ulcers or the lack of hay or pasture available to horses, but not soybean meal. Soybean meal is made up of proteins, which are actually shown to have some buffering capacity.
Q: Can prolonged use of bute cause equine ulcers?
A: Bute and other NSAIDs can trigger gastric upset that can result in equine ulcers. Providing excessively high levels of NSAIDs for prolonged periods definitely need to be managed accordingly.
Q & A on Equine Calming and Attitude Issues
Q: We have a seasoned show horse that has not been responding to training or competition over the last few weeks. His mind seems to be somewhere else. Our trainer wants to put him on a calming supplement, but this horse was never this way before. What might be going on?
A: There are a number of things that could be contributing to the problem. Some basic diet and management practices might include:
- Provide free-choice hay to improve gut health and reduce boredom.
- Providing some alfalfa hay might be a benefit.
- Feed less starch calories and more fat calories from Envision Fat supplement.
- Reduce stress by providing turn-out time for stalled horses.
Q: Do calming products work in horses?
A: There are a host of factors that can make a horse nervous, aggressive and excitable. One of the obvious factors is the presence of digestive upset or equine ulcers. However, there are nutrients often associated with contributing to a more relaxed or calm horse. Some of the more prominent are the B vitamins niacin and thiamin. The mineral magnesium is thought to provide some benefits, as well. The amino acid tryptophan is also a nutrient of consideration. Experience has shown that a horse with digestive upset doesn’t feel or perform well. Keeping a healthy digestive tract seems to encourage a healthy minded and happy horse. Progressive Nutrition’s Kool Blue™ and Soothing Pink™ supplements contain elevated levels of the essential B vitamins niacin and thiamin as well as magnesium and tryptophan. More importantly, these nutritional supplements contain nutrients that promote a healthy digestive tract.