Feeding the Ulcer Prone Horse
26 Jul 2017
Equine Gastric Ulcers
This year’s competition season is well under way and it is about this time of year that the subject of ulcers may start to rear its ugly head again. Incidence of ulcers seems to be on the rise but it is probably just that we are better at detecting them and owners are more tuned in to the possibility that ulcers may be an issue. Data and research suggests that as high as 85% of competition horses (at all levels) and 60% of leisure horses are likely to have some kind of gut ulceration. If you are concerned about ulcers or have a horse that is prone to ulcers then a diet change may be in order.
Anyone who reads this column regularly will know the emphasis that I place on the importance of fibre in the horse’s diet. It is good to see that, in general, since I started writing this column over 10 years ago that there are many more horse owners aware of the importance of Fibre First. If you are feeding a horse that has or has had ulcers, it is even more important to ensure a constant supply of fibre with no long periods without.
Ulcers happen when acid production in the stomach exceeds the body’s own protective factors. For gastric ulcers to develop there needs to be exposure to hydrochloric acid (digestive juices of the stomach) and to volatile fatty acids (VFAs) and organic and bile acids (VFAs are fermentation by-products of sugar sources found in hay or grain, while bile acids reflux from the small intestine). Researchers found that within just three to four hours of exposure to these substances, tissue resistance dramatically decreases. If acid exposure continues, tissue begins to slough away, with severe damage occurring within 12 hours. Saliva is the body’s own buffering system so any changes to a horse’s diet that reduces saliva will increase the risk of gastric ulcers.
Nature’s own buffer
As discussed in previous articles horses are trickle feeders and therefore their stomach produces acid all the time, this means that they need to produce saliva (alkaline) frequently to buffer this acid production. Studies in the UK have shown that horses produce 1ml of saliva per chew. They chew about once every second and take around 4,500 chews to eat a kilo of forage and 1,200 chews to eat a kilo of concentrates. This shows that fibre is crucial to help prevent ulcers as its consumption produces more than three times as much saliva as eating
concentrates does. Decreased chewing associated with eating of concentrates results in decreased saliva production and therefore reduced buffering of the acid produced in the stomach. All very painful. Obviously there is even less saliva produced if a horse is left without fibre for a prolonged period of time, again highlighting the necessity for free feeding of forage.
Feeding and Management Recommendations
For horses prone to or suspected of having gastric ulcers the following strategies are recommended;
- Ad lib fibre; minimum of 2% bodyweight. This should be genuinely ad-lib with the horse having some kind of forage (grass or hay) in front of it consistently.
- Use small holed haynets or slow feeders to ensure that good doers can have constant access. Soak hay or select low sugar varieties to lower the calories provided.
- Make use of alfalfa and grass (natural stomach buffers with high calcium content). These high-calorie chops will stimulate saliva production and are ideal for the performance horse (alfalfa chaff, grass chaff, sugar beet shreds).
Keep hay in front of a horse at all times when possible or turn out on pasture to prevent long fasting periods and to keep the horse chewing, which stimulates production of buffering saliva.
Feed no more than 2kg of concentrate per feeding and no more frequently than every five to six hours.
Keep starch as low as possible by selecting the appropriate feed for your horse. A balancer (e.g. Gain Opti-Care Balancer, D&H Ultimate Balancer etc) plus a high calorie chop along with oil according to condition and work level is one very successful way to do this.
There are also some really low starch complete feeds available for horses in higher levels of work who have had ulcers. These are very high oil and also high in quality fibre. They also contain prebiotics and probiotics as an addition to help with general gut health. There are a number of these available now but include; Gain Freedom Mix and Nuts, Bailey’s Ease and Excel and D&H Cushcare which is also ideal for ulcer prone horses if you just ignore the name! Harbro’s own Conditioning Cubes are an extremely safe, very low starch feed that can also be used for those prone to ulcers.
Research has shown that feeding your horse a couple of handfuls of alfalfa or grass chop immediately before riding provides a protective mat in the stomach, preventing acid splash during exercise. Providing a hay/haylage net whilst grooming and tacking up your horse will also provide a protective factor in the stomach.
- If your horse has had ulcers, the most recent recommendation is to actively feed oil at 50-100ml per day. The type of oil is also important with 2 parts soya oil to 1 part cod liver oil being the current advice.
Minimise stress in your horse's life.
Veterinary intervention is usually required to help treat. Your Veterinary practice will advise you of the best course of action should you suspect ulcers. Preventative and management measures are key and include those above. Veterinary treatments are the only things that will treat ulcers. There are many supplements available that could help prevent reoccurrence once the treatment course is finished. As with all of these things there is a bewildering array of potential products out there. Look for products that use a combination of buffering agents ranging from sodium bicarbonate to seaweed and/or aluminium based strategies. Also look for research or studies to back up the products efficacy.
Feeding a buffering agent however, is no substitute for managing a horse's feeding program to minimize acid production. Use the best “supplement” that you have at your disposal (e.g. hay and grass) and ensure that you think fibre first when looking at your horse’s feeding regime.