Equine Ulcers: Prevention is Better Than The Cure!

Photo by Lauren Mauldin


What is the cause of stomach ulcers in competition horses and how can we prevent them?

Behavioural markers of ulcers are very unreliable as not all horses show these, but some do. They may include chewing wood, stereotypic behaviour development, box-walking and general increased nervousness. Other horses, in the face of continuous/chronic pain may just become dull and un-interested, this is called learnt helplessness. But all of these behaviours can also occur for other reasons (see our blog on Behaviour and Feedstuffs).

Author’s Tip: If you suspect stomach ulcers consult with a vet. Discuss with him/her if simple turnout on grass is in your situation the best and first option to see if problems resolve. This may also prevent an invasive scanning procedure for ulcers.

Horses have a small stomach. It is only about the size of a football that can expand to the size of a basketball when filled. So why are they prone to developing ulcers? The horses stomach has three distinct sections – the first, the saccus caecus, is like a dead end which should have relatively little contact with foodstuffs. Concentrate feed is mixed with saliva and acidic fluid from digestive juices in the stomach. This can over spill into the saccus caecus during exercise or due to high volume feeding and cause damage, leading to ulcers in the lining there. Never feed more than the volume of a football in concentrated feed at once    (around 2-3kg) for a horse, and even less for a pony. Learning some basic rationing will teach you to assess this for your particular horse’s bodyweight.

In a previous blog we talked about natural feed for horses and highlighted that forage moves continuously through the tract. If the horse experiences longer fasting periods – e.g. it may finish its hay ration by 10pm at night and then have to wait until 7 am for the next feed, then feedstuffs are more likely to remain for longer in an area, like the stomach.

Author’s Tip: Avoid fasting periods longer than 3 hours at any time. Competition horses are often fasted for much longer unnecessarily, increasing the risk of ulcers.

Author’s Tip: When feeding after a period of fasting (e.g. mornings, after exercise), always feed forage first so that lots of protective saliva is produced.

Try and provide enough forage over-night on some small amounts when travelling. Some people feed some additional forage as late as possible (9pm) and return early in the morning (6am). If that is not possible then using slow feeders or haynets, and feeding more of low quality forages, will keep the horse mentally happier and protect the stomach. In most situations, turn out on adequate temperate grassland is the best protector/preventative against stomach ulcers. If there is lack of grass or forage, passage rates slow down and this leads to excess acidification causing damage to the stomach lining. In the lower stomach, the fundic region the food chime does naturally become very acidic – below pH 4. This is acidic enough to burn your hand so there is protective mucus to prevent damage in the glandular regions. Very stalky, short chopped forage (very late cut hay, straw, alfalfa which is late cut for example) and eating of very stalky plants can lead to ‘scratching’ of the stomach wall, as the particles accumulate around the ‘bottleneck’ area from the stomach into the much narrower wide small Intestine.

Photo by Lauren Mauldin

Author’s Tip: Feed long hays rather than rough stalky short chopped dried forages. Horses will chew these more efficiently and swallow smaller particles

The mucus and protective metabolism can also be interfered with by medication. In particular non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, often prescribed as pain killers for horses) will lead to a break down in this protective mechanism and cause ulcers in the lower regions of the stomach.

Photo by Lauren Mauldin

Author’s Tip: If you horse is on NSAIDs ensure you feed lots of forage to pass through the stomach quickly and encourage lots of chewing which produces lots of protective saliva to buffer acid. If there is a need for long term use, for arthritis for example, ask your vet for advice. It may be necessary that the horse gets some additional protective medication against acid damage.

Horses which are in heavy to very heavy work are three times more likely to suffer from ulcers. Horses in race-training, on limited turnout or no turnout on grass have around a 80% chance of developing stomach ulcers. These can cause discomfort, minor recurring colics and lack of performance. Feeding high concentrate feed together with the mechanical stress during canter/gallop which pushes food upwards into the non-glandular regions of the stomach are both implicated in this. In former times horses used to have a clear ‘off-season’ where no competitions took place, and there was time for recovery through a prolonged turn-out period. Now we have competitions all year round and this ‘preventative aid’ has been removed. Consider re-introducing at least 1 month grazing periods twice a year to give your horse a rest – this is long enough for recovery and yet some fitness level will be sustained. Some trainers now use anti-acid drugs regularly rather than adjusting the management of the horses.

Author’s Tip: To minimize ulcer occurrence in performance horses, avoid feeding large concentrate meals, feed good quality forage (grass as number 1 option), feed little and often and avoid fasting periods of more than 3 hours.

Only if this does not work and ulcers are diagnosed look at medicinal as options.

This column was brought to you by nutritional experts from ANIVADO. ANIVADO is a platform for online courses on equine nutrition, behaviour, health and performance. If you want to learn more about us please visit: www.ANIVADO.com