Gastric Ulcers and the Performance Horse

Gastric Ulcers and the Performance Horse

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Recent studies show that gastric ulcers occur in a surprisingly high percentage of performance horses. Jack Grogan, CN, chief science officer for Uckele Health & Nutrition, explains why these ulcers develop and nutritional methods for contending with them, "The leading causes for gastric ulcers are the stomach's exposure to excessive acid levels, a reduction in the natural protection of the stomach's lining, or both. Most equine ulcers occur in the upper portion of the stomach near the esophagus due to excess acid."

Grogan says that under normal circumstances, the stomach is protected from excess acid by the horse's saliva: "This happens because horses are naturally wandering, grazing animals with a digestive tract that is well adapted for a steady diet of forage and the continuous secretion of gastric acid throughout the day. When the horse produces saliva in adequate amounts by chewing, it ... coats the lining of the stomach, protecting the stomach from gastric acid."

However, regardless of whether the horse is grazing, the equine stomach secretes gastric acid in a continuous and cumulative manner. Therefore when insufficient roughage is provided or a high grain diet is fed intermittently, gastric acid continues to release without the buffer of the saliva, irritating the stomach's mucosal lining.

Grogan explains that many horses develop ulcers with no obvious (outward) signs; However, once a gastric ulcer forms, the stomach tissue becomes damaged and inflamed, which can lead to depressed appetite, irritability, colic, diminished performance, weight loss, chronic pain, or discomfort for the horse and can ultimately become a serious issue. The only way to know for certain if a gastric ulcer is present is through an endoscopic examination.

Modern feeding techniques (are thought to) contribute in part to the high incidence of ulcers, Grogan says: "High grain diets can contribute to excessive stomach acid release, and periods of fasting expose the horse's stomach to gastric acid. For performance horses, diets high in grain are common, as are periods of intermittent feeding. In addition, during heavy training the protective benefit of saliva is reduced and stress is intensified by the training, combined with the stress of traveling and performance to further increase the stomach tissue's exposure to gastric acid."

In contrast, Grogan says that pasture-kept and -fed horses rarely develop stomach ulcers. A forage diet allows for continuous eating to match the steady release of stomach acid and also tends to increase the production of the stomach-protecting saliva. Grain-fed horses produce less protective saliva, and both grain and pellet concentrates can increase stomach acid release. However, while putting a horse on pasture is effective, it's not always practical.

Grogan suggests supplying extra digestive support that, along with improving stress response and reducing gut inflammation, is vital to managing stomach acid reactions and preventing them in the future.

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Uckele Health and Nutrition

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