Is it Okay to Ride My Ulcer-Prone Horse After Feeding?

Old wisdom tells us not to feed horses before exercise. But this outdated belief might be hurting your horse.

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Is it Okay to Ride my Ulcer-Prone Horse After Feeding?
While consuming forage might increase body weight, researchers have showed that feeding small amounts of hay or grazing prior to exercise doesn’t negatively impact performance. | Photo: iStock
Q: I’ve always been taught to not ride a horse right after it’s been fed. However, I have a mare who has gastric ulcers, and my veterinarian recommended that I feed her prior to riding (specifically, alfalfa). So which is it—feed or don’t feed before riding?

A: While it’s true that it is typically best to avoid feeding horses concentrates (especially those high in starch) within a couple of hours of riding due to the effect this can have on available metabolites during exercise, allowing access to forage has a number of benefits. Remember horses are designed to eat fibrous plant material almost constantly, while at the same time traveling considerable distances.

As a result of this constant forage consumption, horses have evolved to secrete gastric acid into their stomachs on a continuous basis. Acid is secreted whether they are eating or not and is needed to activate enzymes involved in protein digestion. The act of chewing causes the release of saliva, which contains sodium bicarbonate and calcium—both of which act to buffer stomach acid. It’s a brilliant system, because the constantly secreted stomach acid is buffered by the continuous release of saliva from chewing.

But what happens when, instead of continuous access to forage, we meal-feed our horses? The stomach acid is secreted as always, but there is no longer a steady saliva supply. That’s because most horses finish their allotted hay meal in at most a couple of hours unless eating out of a slow feeder. This leaves the stomach environment to become increasingly acidic and raises ulcer risk

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Written by:

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

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