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To understand what causes stomach ulcers, we must understand the physiology of the equine stomach and GI system.
The horse is meant to graze up to 20 hours a day. Their stomachs constantly produce acid and do not stop just because there is no food intake. The saliva the horse produces when chewing serves as a natural acid buffer and lubricant; however, saliva is only produced when chewing/eating. As the horse grazes off and on all day, the saliva production as well as the fiber intake buffers the acid production with this continuous intake.
Another important fact is that the equine stomach is quite small and is not meant to be completely full at any one time. It is set up to have a constant flow of roughage on and off all day and night. The food passes through the stomach quite rapidly and then to the small intestine also fairly rapidly, reaching the large intestine usually within a couple of hours. The large intestine is where most of the fiber digestion takes place. Because the horse is designed to take in mostly a roughage diet, the acid is there to begin to break this fiber down. The fiber absorbs much of the acid produced in the stomach, as well as the saliva serving as a buffer. Fibrous diets also tend to stay in the stomach longer than grain (non-fibrous) material. How fast the stomach empties is dictated by the size of the meal; the larger the meal, the larger it is passed through.
Stress and exercise increase acid production. With the increased pressure on the horse’s abdomen during exercise, the acid can be forced up into more sensitive, unprotected areas of the stomach that do not normally come in contact with stomach acid. It is for this reason that it is important to allow your horse to graze either on hay or pasture pre and post exercise, as well as offering grazing time during your conditioning regimen.
As handlers and owners, we tend to feed our horses large meals once or twice a day (at best, three times a day). The more performance we expect out of our horses, the more we feed. The horse spends less time chewing grain than grass/hay and, thus, produces less saliva with a heavy grain diet. As stated above, the larger the meal, the quicker its contents pass through the equine stomach, leaving it susceptible once again to all the remaining acid production.
And then we ask our horses to do long conditioning rides and even longer endurance rides.
It’s a no-brainer that the majority of horses have some sort of ulcer issue going on, right?
Knowing what causes ulcers, how do we prevent them?
First and foremost is simply barn management. I know not everyone has the ability to keep their horse on pasture 24 hours a day and not everyone can feed at least 3 times a day, and then there is always the “easy-keeper” that just plain does not need to eat so much, even if it is just hay or grass. So you have to assess your current situation. If you have no grass, try to keep hay in front of them. If you are able to give your horse a nice grassy pasture, allow them to graze either during the day or at night and then offer hay when off of the pasture. For that “easy-keeper,” offer them smaller portions of hay several times a day. As far as concentrated feeds go, many endurance-marketed feeds as well as some performance feeds have beet pulp in them and it certainly is a good idea to feed extra beet pulp with your feed as a mash.
I think it goes without saying, as an endurance rider, we want our horses to eat on trail, but do be sure to take the time to do this during conditioning rides as well, even if it is a short distance. If you are not an endurance rider, be sure to offer your horse hay/alfalfa at events and while trailering. In fact, it is always a good idea to offer hay when in the trailer whether it is a short distance or long distance.
As an endurance rider or anyone who travels with their horses, time in the trailer is certainly a factor. There have been studies done that show simply traveling 30 minutes in a trailer can cause ulcers to develop. That’s scary. The best we can do here is get your horse used to traveling. Some of us are lucky to have trails or arenas right from/at our barns, BUT that horse doesn’t get travel time in the trailer to get used to it. I believe trailer time is an important part of training for any sport horse.
Some preventatives to use include offering alfalfa when trailering and at the rides/events (if you do not already feed this regularly) – alfalfa is a natural acid buffer and high in calcium. Aloe Vera is supposed to be good to use as a top dressing in your feed every day and in your electrolyte mixture. Omeprazole (generic name for Gastro-Guard or Ulcer Guard) can be used prior to travel or after competition (prohibited by AERC drug rules to use during the endurance events and has a 24-hour withdrawal timeframe).
I hope this information is helpful and useful to your program. Please feel free to comment or ask questions on any of the information given here.