Preventing Gastric Ulcers in Performance Horses

Performance horses’ lifestyles put them at a greater risk of developing gastric ulcers. An equine nutritionist explains how to combat this.
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A Look Back at the Feeding of Performance Horses
Feeding a small amount of forage before competition can help reduce your horse’s risk of developing gastric ulcers. | Erica Larson

Q. I compete with my horse in the jumpers year-round. I know that it is advisable to feed a small meal before riding to prevent ulcers, but what is the best practice for showing? Should I feed my horse a small meal before he shows? If so, how far in advance and what would be best to feed him (forage vs. concentrate, etc.)?

A. It is great that you are thinking about preventing ulcers, or at least decreasing their severity, before they start.  Studies have shown that 60 to 90 percent of performance horses have ulcers. Unfortunately, typical show horse management practices, including stall confinement, higher-concentrate (grain) diets, travel to new venues, and stress level, can contribute to ulcer development. Horses that develop ulcers often exhibit nervous or aggressive behaviors, sensitivity in the back or girth area, teeth grinding, decreased appetite and poor performance. They might also lie on their backs in their stall, which seems to alleviate some of the pain associated with gastric ulcers. 

Gastric ulcers occur when acids produced in the stomach, such as hydrochloric acid, come in contact with the wall of the upper stomach (called the squamous region). This region does not have a protective mucus layer, like what is found in the lower, glandular region, which is where acids are secreted. In performance horses this often happens during exercise. Feeding practices, such as infrequent meals, can leave the stomach empty; however, horses are designed to eat small, frequent meals and secrete acid constantly. An “empty” stomach, which occurs when meals are quickly digested and separated by several hours, is more susceptible to developing ulcers. 

There are several things you can do, from a dietary standpoint, to help lessen the incidence of ulcers at shows and at home. If you are feeding a concentrate, divide it into multiple small meals throughout the day to decrease stomach acidity (more on why this helps in a moment). You could also switch to a feed higher in fat, which can help to decrease stomach acidity. Your horse should have access to high-quality forage throughout the day, and hay containing a legume, such as alfalfa, will be higher in calcium, which is a natural buffer for stomach acid. From a management standpoint you should hand-walk and hand-graze your horse—or even give your horse some turnout in a paddock, if available—to help decrease your horse’s stress levels, and provide him with more forage. 

You are correct that feeding a small meal prior to competing can help prevent ulcers. However, you need to be careful regarding what you feed. A grain meal is not advisable, but owners should avoid filling the stomach with a large hay meal. A good alternative is to feed about a pound of chopped forage 30 minutes prior to competing. This will provide a few advantages: it will fill the stomach so it is not completely empty, and the forage will also essentially form a cover which will float on top of the acidic fluids and can keep the acid from splashing on the squamous region.  

If you have any concerns that your horse has ulcers developing, consult your veterinarian. There are medications containing omeprazole and some natural supplements that can help heal the ulcers, and most horses respond positively with improved attitude and better performance. You should also speak with a nutritionist to make sure you are meeting your horse’s dietary needs and minimizing the potential for ulcer development. 


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Written by:

Janice L. Holland, PhD, is an Associate Professor and Director of Equine Studies at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. A graduate of both Penn State and Virginia Tech, her equine interests include nutrition and behavior, as well as amateur photography. When not involved in horse activities she enjoys spending time outdoors enjoying nature.

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