pouring sweet feed into a bucket

Q: I heard that certain kinds of concentrate feeds might make horses more prone to gastric ulcers. Is there any truth to this? My horse is currently on a sweet feed, and I am treating her for ulcers. Can I keep her on sweet feed, or is there a better option?

A:  This is a great question and one many owners of horses diagnosed with ulcers ask. Your horse’s diet influences both the development and healing of ulcers. Therefore, if you suspect your horse might have ulcers, it is smart to evaluate their diet.

The stomach can broadly be divided into two areas—a nonglandular and glandular region. The glandular region is located closer to the small intestine (or lower stomach). The cells in this region secrete hydrochloric acid, which breaks down feed, and mucus—which protects the cells from the acid. In the horse, hydrochloric acid is secreted continuously. The upper (nonglandular) region does not secrete hydrochloric acid or mucous and is therefore more prone to ulcer development.

Several factors predispose a horse to developing ulcers. Some of the more common causes include excessive stress, intense exercise, high-grain diets, low forage intake, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug use for pain management, and extended time in a stall. Competitive show horses might experience several of these scenarios, so managers and owners should be aware of what can be done to minimize the risk. However, even pleasure horses and unridden horses can develop ulcers.

Horses should receive at least 1.5% of their body weight in forage daily and, ideally, continuously to mimic the horse’s natural feeding regimen. If pasture access is not an option, consider using a hay slow feeder. Horses produce saliva when chewing, so having access to forage, which requires chewing to consume, boosts saliva production. Constant access to forage means the horses will produce saliva continuously, which buffers the acid in the stomach. Forage will also form a “mat” and float on top of fluid in the stomach, which helps keep ulcer-causing acid from the susceptible upper stomach.

To greater reduce ulcer risk, consider adding legume forage to the diet. Legumes such as alfalfa increase calcium, magnesium, and amino acids that help buffer acid in the stomach and heal the cells lining the stomach.

High-grain concentrates, such as sweet feeds, can cause a spike in acid production, but you can take a few steps to prevent it. If feeding both forage and concentrate at a meal, offer the forage first so it can buffer the acid. Divide sweet feed into small meals so a reduced amount of grain is in the stomach at a time, ideally keeping it in the glandular region. If your horse needs a high-calorie concentrate to maintain weight and energy, try to find one with a higher fat content.  Higher-fat feeds cause less gastric acid production and, because fat is calorie-dense, you can feed a lower quantity.

So, in summary, you can still feed an ulcer-prone horse sweet feed. However, you should implement management changes to reduce the potential for ulcer formation. Consider switching to a higher-fat concentrate to reduce the horse’s total volume of feed intake. Feed forage before sweet feed at mealtime to buffer acid production, and provide forage constantly so the horse is producing saliva continuously.