As a horse owner it is perfectly natural to be concerned about gastric ulcers, and ulcers have become big business. You can’t open a horsey magazine without seeing adverts for ulcer related products, and thanks to advances in modern veterinary medicine it is much easier (and cheaper) to diagnose ulcers in leisure horses and family pets. The symptoms of gastric ulcers are extremely varied, from a dislike of girth tightening to a poor coat, spooking or change in ‘rideability’. Horses with relatively minor ulcers may demonstrate lots of symptoms, others non at all. There are so many behaviours that could be attributed to ulcers that it is easy to live in fear of causing ulcers in your horse, and of course if you’ve ever suffered from a mouth ulcer you’ll know how painful a tiny ulcer can be.
Almost every horse owner understands the need for their horse to eat ‘little’ and often. Owners know that they should be trying to mimic natural feeding patterns, but I think that we have got this slightly wrong.
The UK horse population is fat, and it is getting fatter. There’s no way of getting round this. Whether you call it ‘show condition’, or say the horse looks ‘well’, a significant proportion of horses in this country are obese, and this is leading to numerous health conditions such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome and Laminitis. Sadly we are literally killing with kindness, and personally I believe that our fear of gastric ulcers is contributing to our horses becoming overweight.
It is well documented that stress, and a diet with restricted forage can contribute to gastric ulcers, and for a long time this was thought to be a condition mainly affecting racehorses. Although more recent research has found that horses with a variety of management styles can be affected by ulcers, the message has been that lots of fibre will prevent ulcers. Although this is true, we may have taken this too far, and many horses are fed excess quantity of hay or haylage, which is often too high in ‘quality’ for their nutritional needs.
Horses are designed to be grazing for around 16-18 hours in a 24 hour period, and their digestive system is designed for this. They can only produce saliva when they chew, and this saliva is needed to ‘buffer’ the most acidic part of their stomach. Part of the stomach has a very low pH (as low as battery acid), but with frequent eating and saliva production this shouldn’t cause too much of a problem. Knowing that horses need to eat has led to many horses being fed ‘ad lib’ hay, with the idea that the horse will eat as much as he or she needs. This can be a comfort to the owner, knowing that their horse won’t be going without access to forage. Whilst this can work for some horses, feeding ‘ad lib’ hay can result in lots of wastage (it’s quite upsetting to find that your horse has used it’s hay pile as a toilet), it’s not the most economical option, and it results in overweight horses eating too much. Unfortunately the horse’s ‘off switch’ doesn’t always work, and hormonal changes in the obese or overweight horse means that they simply don’t know when to stop eating. Overweight horses are often insulin resistant, also making them resistant to leptin, which tells the brain when it’s had enough to eat.
As owners we need to find a balance between providing a free for all ‘hay buffet’, and a greedy horse running out of hay at 6pm.
Increasing chew time, and slowing the horse down is one of the best ways to achieve a balance between allowing the horse to eat frequently and managing weight gain. You can use haynets, specially designed haynet, use a hayball or split the hay ration into more than one serving. You can read more in this article.
Many owners feed their horse it’s hay by eye, giving a few slices of hay, or a large or small haynet, but do you know if this is the correct amount for your horse? Your horse should be receiving around 2% of its bodyweight as forage, and this will need to be reduced depending on how much grass your horse eats during the day. For the overweight horse it is best to try increasing the chew time, and reducing the calories within the hay (soaking is a popular method) first before significantly reducing the quantity too drastically. It may be necessary to reduce the quantity further, but this should only be undertaken with the advice of your vet.
Many of the leisure horses in the UK will have a degree of ‘native’ blood in, are a cob or cob cross, and such types are simply designed to eat low ‘quality’ food. Hay and feed widely available for the companion or leisure horse are often too nutritious, and our horses would often do better with a lower quality hay. If you find such hay harder to come by soaking hay is a sensible step, as this can have a significant reduction in Water Soluble Carbohydrates within the hay.
Having your hay analysed is a very sensible step, rather than assessing the nutritional quality by eye, so that you really do know what you are feeding your horse.
So many owners worry that their horse might have ulcers but are reluctant to investigate this. I think that this partly cost driven, but largely because they don’t want to starve their horse for 12-16 hours before the gastroscope, worrying that this could cause ulcers, or make any existing ulcers worse. It is necessary to without hay and any other feed before the scope so that the stomach is completely clear to allow the vet to view the inside lining to check for ulcers.
Whilst there is a cost implication for a gastroscopy (around £200-300) the price of this has reduced considerably in the last five years, and this is a service that lots of practices now offer. Many owners are happy to buy ‘ulcer supplements’, which can be extremely expensive, especially if the cost is added up over a year. Such supplements are unlikely to be able to ‘treat’ the condition, they are not veterinary prescribed medication after all, and there is often a lack of empirical evidence behind some of the marketing claims.
To summarise its justified to worry about gastric ulcers in our horses, but we must ensure that we aren’t making (or keeping) them fat in the process. It’s easy for a well meaning owner to want to do the best for their horse but obesity is such a problem that we all need to be taking sensible steps to help our horses lose weight.