Updated: Apr 7
Ulcers are a common medical condition in horses that are even found in foals. It is estimated that up to 80% of horses living in stables develop ulcers. Because they are so common, the condition is often called “equine gastric ulcer syndrome.” Read this blog and learn the most common reasons why horses get ulcers in the first place, and how to prevent them.
What causes ulcers?
The horse's stomach produces digestive acids all the time. In humans, eating stimulates the production of these acids. In horses, digestive acids are constantly being produced. If a horse does not eat, the acid accumulates and irritates the stomach.
Fasting – When a horse does not eat frequently, the acid builds up and ulcers are likely to develop. If you train your horse on an empty stomach, trotting and cantering will make the acids splash around, causing damage in the upper parts of the stomach.
Grain-based feeds - When a horse is fed concentrates, there is an increase in acid production in the stomach. Grain-based feeds will also make the hindgut become acidic and can cause ulcers there.
Limited turnout - Horses with limited turnout and a diet high in processed feeds are more prone to develop ulcers. Often, these factors correlate with horses in heavy work or frequent travels to competitions.
Stress - May decrease the amount of blood flow to the stomach, which makes the lining of the stomach more vulnerable to injury from stomach acid.
Medication – Prolonged use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) blocks the production of a chemical that decreases acid production. This way anti-inflammatory drugs contribute to the development of more gastric acid than normal.
How to prevent ulcers
Never train on an empty stomach - If you are going to train your horse, give the horse some hay before the session. The saliva from chewing will neutralize the acid in the stomach. Plus the hay will function as a lid on the acid fluid and prevent it from splashing about, when the horse trots or canters.
Roughage - Feed your horse with roughage such as hay and limit the amount of grain- based feed. Roughage requires more chewing and stimulates the production of saliva. The swallowed saliva helps to neutralize stomach acid.
Food at all times - Give your horse many small meals or use a slow feeder to make your horse eat free access hay slower. In winter our horses have straw to chew on and as bedding and we often see them nibbling on straws. This way, their stomachs are never empty, and the gastric acid has fewer damaging effects.
Bring hay - When traveling and competing, bring a hay net and make sure your horse has access to forage as often as possible.
Turnout - Provide your horse with plenty of turnout, preferably with other horses in areas that give your horse the freedom to roam and experience a natural environment. This will also reduce stress.
When on medication - When your horse is on anti-inflammatory medication, provide free access to hay, avoid grain- based feeds, and allow your horse to rest.
What are the signs of ulcers?
The signs of ulcers can be subtle and sneaky. Here are some common signs that your horse might have them:
Behavior indicating discomfort around the flanks, often characterized by a dislike of brushing, blanketing, and saddling.
Resistance under saddle
Irritability and other changes in attitude
Reduced appetite, combined with weight loss and poor hair coat
Mental dullness or attitude changes
Poor performance, lack of energy, and stamina
Important to know if you suspect ulcers
Dental issues can be confused with ulcers as well as cause them, by making the horse reluctant to eat and forage due to pain in the mouth. If you suspect ulcers, it’s also wise to have a professional check the horse’s teeth, in case the problem lies there.
Ulcers can develop as squamous gastric ulcers in the upper part of the stomach, glandular gastric ulcers in the lower part of the stomach, and colonic ulcers in the hindgut. Be aware that the proper treatment for the various types of ulcers differ. Ulcers in the lower part of the stomach are harder to heal and need a higher dosage of medication, that suppresses gastric acid production, than ulcers in the upper part of the stomach. Furthermore, ulcers in the lower part of the stomach are more likely to be caused by bacteria, whereas hindgut ulcers can be caused by parasites, use of medication or acidosis from grain feeds.
Keep in mind that it’s no use treating ulcers if the factors causing ulcers in the first place, remain unchanged.
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