by Haley Ruffner
28 July 2022 | [email protected] | 307.205.6628
Statistics on the presence of gastric ulcers in performance horses are shocking—according to a study by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, upwards of 60% of horses suffer from ulcers, with racehorses showing the highest percentage. These overwhelmingly high numbers mean that if you own a few show horses, at least one of them is likely to have ulcers. In trying to do what’s best for our horses—keeping them inside often and controlling every aspect of their food intake, giving them NSAIDs to relieve pain and inflammation, and exercising them on an empty stomach to avoid colic—we create the perfect storm of environmental conditions to cause gastric ulcers. Most horses won’t show clear symptoms of ulcers for long periods of time, so often this issue goes undiagnosed until it becomes very severe.
Horses’ stomachs secrete acid constantly, regardless of whether or not they are currently eating. In this aspect, they differ from humans. The human instinct to feed our horses “meals” to mimic our own feeding schedules (and for our own convenience) does much more harm than good because of this. Horses evolved to eat continuously throughout the day, grazing for approximately sixteen hours daily, for which a constant secretion of stomach acid is beneficial to break down the forage they would naturally be ingesting. However, when the basis of their diet consists of two large, grain-heavy meals with little to no grazing in between, their stomachs end up empty for large pieces of the day, leading to an excess of acid with nothing to neutralize it. Diets based primarily on grain can also contribute to production of volatile fatty acids, which are another risk factor for ulcers. The sheer volume of stomach acid produced daily—up to nine gallons—is more than enough to wreak havoc on a horse’s gut health.
While drought and lack of pasture space can inhibit a horse owner’s ability to allow their horses access to free grazing year-round, bridging that difference by feeding more grain is not the answer. Likewise, a rich hay fed constantly can also be detrimental to a horse’s overall health (not to mention wasteful) if the horse’s dietary requirements don’t align with the nutrient content in the hay. Unless they’re hard keepers or in heavy work, most horses don’t need free choice access to a premium alfalfa. Their digestive systems are built to handle a constant supply of lower-quality roughage, so for easy keepers or horses whose pastures aren’t sufficient to handle consistent grazing, feeding a grass mix forage as a filler (or in addition to a richer hay) can be an effective way to bridge that gap.
With rising hay prices throughout much of the country, some horse owners are feeding more grain due to its consistency and constant supply, but in reality the price per ton of feed is still exponentially higher for grain than for hay. Likewise, the cost of treatment for ulcers (omeprazole) is very high, so paying for additional hay now will be cheaper than treating ulcers down the road. In fact, treatment of ulcers usually includes incorporating some alfalfa into the diet, often to be fed before exercise to provide a buffer in the stomach and prevent acid from splashing up with vigorous movement. Although most ulcers heal within four weeks from the beginning of treatment, many horse owners are unaware that their horses are suffering from them—based on the statistics of how many horses have them versus the numbers that are being treated, there are many horses with undetected and untreated ulcers.
The key to a horse’s gut health lies predominantly in the forage we feed and how closely we can replicate their natural feeding schedules. UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine lists several of these preventative measures in their article, “Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome,” including feeding horses on a free choice basis (ideally in pasture), reducing the amount of grain fed and increasing alfalfa intake where appropriate, reducing use of NSAIDs, and allowing adequate socialization for horses that must be stalled. Limiting stressors in a horse’s life is also a key piece of ulcer prevention, so depending on a horse’s personality and reaction to different circumstances, that could mean limiting intense training sessions and trailering where possible.
In planning ahead to source quality forage, horse owners can ensure that factors like drought or market fluctuations won’t impact the decisions they make for their horses’ health. In years like this where so much of the country is fraught with skyrocketing diesel prices and environmental conditions leading to a poor hay crop, consulting with a trusted farmer or broker who is willing to walk you through nutrition analyses, market predictions, and shipping logistics can go a long way in dispelling uncertainty and helping to find the best products to fit a variety of needs. Sourcing a reliable, quality feed source is one of the most important preventative health measures a horse owner can take to promote not only gut health, but also overall wellness for their animals.
Haley Ruffner is a Sales Broker for Aden Brook and an accomplished writer on the topic of horses.