Q. I work a swing shift schedule from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. My goal is to ride on my way home from work, however the barn feeds at 7:30 a.m. Therefore, I will be riding before my horse eats breakfast. I am concerned about riding him on an empty stomach and that this could increase his risk of developing gastric ulcers. Is this true and, if so, is there anything that I could do that might reduce the risk?
A. You are right to be concerned because horses secrete gastric acid 24 hours a day. When they eat, they secrete saliva, and saliva is a good stomach buffer because it contains sodium bicarbonate. Therefore, in their natural setting where they are eating 16 or more hours a day, horses are almost constantly buffering the stomach acid being secreted. When we meal-feed horses there can be long periods of time when they are not eating and that the stomach acid is not being buffered.
The other benefit of eating is that the food itself might have buffering capacity, and will also help create a mat on the top of the stomach acid. Longer-stemmed forage, helps to make a better mat. The stomach only secretes acid in the lower glandular portion, and the upper area of the stomach remains mostly empty and does not secrete acid. The lower glandular cells secrete mucus and other protective substances, which can protect them from the acid, but this is not true of the upper squamous cells.
A good fibrous mat on top of the stomach acid should prevent acid from having much contact with the upper squamous cells and, due to not having a built-in protective mechanism against the acid, this mat is very important. When long periods of time go by between forage meals, the protective mat starts to diminish. The stomach is mostly empty about six hours after finishing a meal. When horses work and move at speed, the stomach contents move around more and are pushed upward by the contracting abdominal muscles. This means the likelihood of acid coming into contact with the poorly protected squamous tissue increases. So, a good mat is especially important when horses are being worked.
When you arrive at the barn to ride, if your horse has not been fed since the previous night, I would suspect the majority of the fibrous mat has moved on down the digestive tract, and there will not have been any saliva production for a long time. If he works on this now empty and poorly buffered stomach, there is certainly a greater risk that, over time, ulceration may occur.
The good news is that there are a couple of quick and easy things you can do that can reduce this risk. The first is to feed some hay while you are grooming and getting ready to ride. This will stimulate saliva production and create the fibrous mat. If you barn does not allow you to help yourself to hay, there are chopped forages you could feed. Some of these are designed with minimizing ulcer risk in mind. Alfalfa has a better buffering capacity than grass hay so, if you have a choice, feeding a small amount of alfalfa hay or chopped alfalfa in this situation would be ideal. As little as a pound of alfalfa pellets could help.
Another option in addition to or instead of pre-ride hay—would be to feed a good stomach buffer when you get to the barn. The thinking here is if you make the acid less acidic it will not erode the stomach lining. Marine-derived calcium (from seaweed) has been found to be a particularly good buffer. Research has shown that this source of calcium buffers the stomach quite quickly. It can be found in products designed specifically for this purpose and in some other forms of commercial feed.
There are also supplements that contain coating agents that coat the lining of the stomach to help protect it from the acid.However, they may not work quickly enough for pre-ride use. I would recommend reaching out to the manufacturers of such products to find out whether their products are effective in the small amount of time between ingestion and your ride. They will help in the big picture of overall ulcer management though, as will products designed to help the stomach lining become more resilient, so you might decide to incorporate them into your horse’s diet.