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Gastric Ulcers in Horses – Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Gastric ulceration is a widespread condition which unfortunately seems to affect mainly adult horses in high-performance work. Recent studies have indicated that over 90% of racehorses in training are affected, with 50% showing no outward signs of gastrointestinal disease.

We’ve compiled this useful guide to help you spot the symptoms and understand the best practices for maintaining a healthy stomach and digestive system.

Causes of Gastric Ulcers in Horses

Unlike gastric ulcers in humans, which is caused by a Helicobacter Pylori Bacterial Infection, Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS) appears to be a predominantly man-made problem resulting from a variety of factors including:

  • Physical and psychological stressors
  • Medications and underlying diseases
  • Diet and feeding management (limited access to forage, meal feeding, fasting, high carbohydrate diets and withholding of water)

Of these causes the main factor is workload, as the intensity and duration increases so does the risk of gastric ulceration. Management of ulcers frequently requires use of medication and is supported by a yard program that replicates as best as possible a natural feeding program.

The high energy demands for a horse in hard work means a diet high in energy. Grain naturally provides such energy and has been traditionally used as the main source of carbohydrates. Whilst there are benefits to using grain in a diet the amount consumed needs to be regulated for horses with ulceration issues.

Grain naturally contains a high level of starch, a type of carbohydrate that converts to glucose, which is needed to fuel the muscles and other tissues. Keeping starch intake per meal at 1g of starch for every 1kg of body-weight helps reduce the risk of irritation to the stomach lining. The maximum recommended intake is 2g of starch for every 1kg of body-weight per meal, above this rate the risk for ulceration increases. For example a 500kg horse should have an ideal intake of 500g of starch per meal, with the upper intake being 1000g of starch per meal.

Feeding pattern is also influential in maintaining a healthy stomach. Frequent forage feeding creates frequent salivation which acts as a buffer to the acid produced within the stomach. Restricted forage intake has a notable effect on stomach pH and the best practice is ‘free choice’ where possible. At a minimum the diet should provide forage at a rate of 1.5% of the horses bodyweight per day, ideally a horse should receive 2% of its’ bodyweight as forage each day.

Fluid is also important and water should never be restricted. Withholding water not only dehydrates the horse which can negatively impact on performance but is also document as a risk factor for ulceration.

Symptoms of Gastric Ulcers in Horses

There are many clinical signs and symptoms on how to tell if a horse has gastric ulcers, they include:

  • Poor performance
  • Colic
  • Poor appetite
  • Attitude changes
  • Poor body condition
  • A tucked up appearance
  • Dull coat

It is important to note that in many horses, the clinical signs of stomach ulcers may not be noticeable.

In fact, by the time obvious symptoms appear, stomach ulcers may be advanced and more difficult to treat. The presence of ulcers can be confirmed through examining the inside of the stomach through an endoscope, but certain symptoms strongly suggest ulcers.

Finding the Right Diet

Alternative sources of energy can be added to the diet in place of grain such as fat (rice bran, flaxseed and oils) or superfibres (soya hulls, beet pulp and alfalfa meal). A diet that offers a combination of these energy sources along with traditional grains will be beneficial to stomach health without compromising performance.

As ulceration is often connected with poor weight or difficulty maintaining condition, a diet that promotes a healthy digestive system and can maximise nutrient uptake is a great benefit. Use of yeast in a diet will help with fibre digestion and nutrient update, use of the prebiotic FOS (Fructo Oligo Saccharide) will help beneficial bacteria grow and the use of a pathogen binder such as MOS (Mannan Oligo Saccharide) will help cleanse and balance the gut.

When reviewing dietary changes the best way to prevent gastric ulcers is to mimic the life of a horse at free range ie providing a constant supply of fresh forage, trickle fed or free choice, so as to stimulate saliva production, nature’s best antacid, which will neutralise gastric acid, and to feed frequent but small low starch high fibre meals.

What should I feed my horse if I suspect gastric ulcers?

If you have any queries relating to gastric ulcers or any other issue you are having with your horse please contact the RED MILLS nutrition team who will help you with your query!

Ask our experts

  • Tags:
  • Horses
  • EGUS
  • Gastric Ulcers
  • Ulcers in Horses