Over the last few years the equine world has seen a massive increase in cases of horses experiencing the dreaded Gastric ulcers and the even more painful Colonic Ulcers. It used to be that thoroughbreds in the racing industry were the most commonly affected, but now we are seeing large cases of leisure horses and ponies becoming affected by the condition as well. But what are they and why have they become such an issue in the modern horse world?
What are Ulcers and how are the caused?
Gastric Ulcers are small puss filled pockets that develop on the upper lining of the stomach, whilst colonic ulcers can appear as similar circular wounds or even lengthy abrasions along the wall of the hind gut.
They are more often caused by the PH rising and the higher acidity in the stomach and gut burning the lining and killing the healthy bacteria, which then creates these painful sores within our beloved equines.
There are several factors which can cause the acidity levels to rise within the digestive system.
- Prolonged periods without forage. - Horses are designed to graze consistently throughout the day and if left standing without enough forage e.g. in a stable overnight, the acids in the stomach (which are produced 24/7) rise, and whilst the lower stomach is protected by mucus membranes strong enough withstand the acidity the upper stomach doesn't have the same protection and is the main area for Gastric ulcers to be found.
If the stomach becomes completely empty, which only being the size of a rugby ball can happen pretty quickly. The acid from the stomach pours into the hind gut and so causes the formation of Colonic Ulcers
- High concentrated feeds. -In the wild horses can be found eating a mostly forage based diet consisting of a mixture grasses with the occasional herbs and berries as the come across them. Thoroughbreds have historically been fed high concentrate diets of cereals to try and make them perform better and faster. More recently though more of us average horse people have been piling more cereals into our leisure horses because we think they need it. By adding too many cereals to our horses diet (the digestive system is not designed to break these down) the PH levels throughout the digestive system are raised and so allowing Ulcers to form.
- Physical and psychological stress.- Some horses are just naturally stressy and others may go through short periods of stress, such as moving yards etc and although it isn't exactly known why, there has been cases of Ulcers that point to this being the cause.
- Parasites (Worms) – Worms such as Bots and Small encysted Red worm make their home in the horse by busting through lining of the stomach/gut wall and burrowing in.this compromises the strength and effectiveness and means there is a higher chance of Ulcers developing.
How do I know if my horse has Ulcers?
So ulcers sound like a pretty bad thing for your horse to develop, and you'd be right for thinking it. Imagine yourself with severe stomach pains and every time you move the pain becomes even worse. Here are some of the more common symptoms found in horses that have been diagnosed with Ulcers of both kinds.
- Lack of energy/stamina
- Weight loss and general lack in condition I.e dullness of the coat.
- Increased irritability and sensitivity, especially around the stomach area.
- Resistance under saddle. Either refusing to go forward or extremely sharp.
- Loss of appetite.
If your horse shows any of these signs it could be worth contacting your vet to have their stomach scoped with a camera to see if there are any signs of problems within the digestive system.
If this is not possible then maybe consider some of the following changes that could be made to both prevent and help cure any ulcers that may have formed.
- High Roughage, low concentrate Diet – As mentioned earlier in the article horses are designed to eat mostly fibre and so for the majority or leisure horses cereals can be cut out completely and a diet of grass, hay and natural minerals is the better route to take to keep acid levels lower. Haylage should be examined carefully as the fermentation formed within the wrapping can sometimes be rather acidic.
- Continuous supply of forage – The most important thing with Ulcers is to prevent the acid of the stomach reaching the unprotected areas of the digestive system. The easiest way to do this is to ensure the stomach has something in it at all times. The like of grass and hay line the stomach like a blanket and take a while to digest so is the best thing to be feeding your horse in large quantities. Contrary to popular belief it is also a good idea to offer your horse a little to eat before exercise to prevent the acid splashing around in the stomach whilst being worked.
- Regular worm counts – Its a good idea to have a worm plan in place and worm counts are the best way to allow for more accurate forms of tackling any worms your horse may encounter, without excessive and unnecessary medication.
- Antacids and natural minerals – Adding a small amount of Brewers Yeast or something similar to your horses diet can help keep the PH levels of your horses stomach more regulated and prevent the build up of excess acids. Also using the like of natural mineral and oils with help to keep your horse in much better condition all round instead of excess quantities of cereals etc
I hope you have found this information of some use and carry it as a useful tool in the future. I have had several issues with my own horses showing symptoms of Gastric and Colonic Ulcers over the last couple of winters and whilst I haven't had them scoped for clear proof that they were suffering from ulcers, just changing the way I manage them has made a massive difference and the symptoms disappeared. Prevention is better than cure and so I now always keep up the management tips ive described above and continue to have happy and healthy horses.