Pleasure Horses Have Ulcers, Too

Research has shown that 90% or more of high-level performance horses have gastric ulcers, and that lower-level show horses also can get ulcers, but at a lower rate. The Horse and Merial (manufacturers of GastroGard and UlcerGard, ulcer treatment and preventive) joined forces with Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky., to have some pleasure and low-level show horses examined for ulcers to see if the average horse suffers from stomach ulcers.

Fifteen low-level show horses (shown a few times a year) that "weren't doing quite right" in Central Kentucky were recommended by their veterinarians to take part in an endoscopic survey on April 16. Some horses were recommended because they ate a lot of feed and never gained weight, while others displayed nervousness, teeth grinding, and a poor hair coat. These 15 horses were turned out every day, with fairly stress-free lives.

Each horse was trailered to Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital and examined with an endoscope by internal medicine specialist Bill Bernard, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM. Also on hand was Stephanie Thompson, DVM, manager of veterinary technical services at Merial.

The actual scoping procedure for each horse lasted less than 10 minutes and was done under sedation using Boehringer-Ingelheim's new tranquilizer Sedi-Vet. The sedative causes less ataxia (incoordination) than other sedatives currently available and helps the horse wake up faster; the horses stand quietly, but can walk away after the procedure without stumbling.

Eight horses were diagnosed with ulcers (53.3%). These ranged in severity from "healing ulcer ridge that looks like a volcano" to a "slight reddening in one portion of the stomach," according to Bernard.

Thompson discussed with each of the horse owners the best use of UlcerGard for their particular situations.

For horses that don't travel to shows on a regular basis, she recommended that owners use UlcerGard during times of stress, such as with varied feeding practices, changes in routine, and prior to any traveling.

Description of Each Case

For each horse that was diagnosed with an ulcer, the owner was given instructions to begin a preventive program with their veterinarian. Those horses that didn't have ulcers, but had underlying causes of poor health, were told to have further testing performed by the veterinarian to find the cause. Thompson recommended that each horse, regardless of the outcome of the endoscope procedure, use UlcerGard during times of stress to prevent ulcer formation.

The first horse examined was Panache, a 7-year-old sport horse who has been worked under saddle for two years and was already schooling 4th level dressage and showing in 3'9” jumper classes. She had been showing in Florida during the winter, but had been at home for the past three weeks. Her owner said she was kept on a regimen of UlcerGard while he was traveling because she didn't eat well. Panache's stomach was normal and ulcer-free.

Crafty is a 12-year-old English Thoroughbred who competes at the Preliminary level in eventing. He has had the past year off, and he was acquired three weeks ago by his owner. Crafty eats beet pulp and six pounds of sweet feed each day, along with hay and grass during turnout. Although he wasn't displaying any overt clinical signs of having an ulcer, his owner wanted to see if he was healthy since she just purchased him and didn't know his history. Crafty's stomach appeared normal.

Reality H, a 10-year-old Oldenburg stallion, competes in eventing, dressage, and jumper classes. He has the same feed schedule as Crafty since they live on the same farm. Reality was on GastroGard a few months ago because he went off his feed, but his owner didn't know if he had an ulcer at that time because he wasn't scoped. "He improved with the medication," his owner said. Bernard found no abnormalities in his stomach.

Nipos, a 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood, competes in training and 4th level dressage. He eats sweet feed with corn oil, alfalfa, grass hay, and gets eight hours of turnout per day. His owner didn't seem to think he had an ulcer, but said he appeared thinner than he should be. Bernard said, "He has a healing ulcer ridge that looks like a volcano." Thompson recommended Nipos be treated with GastroGard, then placed on a program with Ulcer-Gard since something in Nipos' environment is causing him to be susceptible to ulcers.

Cajun is a 7-year-old Thoroughbred who competes in the local jumper ranks. He is said to eat a huge amount of feed, but you could count the ribs on his body. Bernard found a slight irritation in Cajun's stomach lining, but did not have an actual ulcer present. Cajun's owner was sent home with instructions to use UlcerGard since he appears susceptible to getting an ulcer.

Little John is a 12-year-old New Zealand Thoroughbred that just underwent a series of joint surgeries. "We wanted to make sure he wasn't sick from the stress of the surgeries before we started competing," said his owner. Little John is also prone to quickly dropping weight even though he eats more feed than any other horse in the barn. Bernard found a grade 1 ulcer.

Rocky, an 8-year-old Thoroughbred hunter, is described as, "Kind of a fretful horse that worries a lot. He's nervous at shows, but manages to keep weight on," said his caretaker. Rocky has the same meal plan as Cajun. Bernard said his stomach was normal.

Buzz, a 5-year-old Thoroughbred that is unsound except for walking, is very thin and in overall poor condition despite his voracious appetite, ample turnout, and good attitude. Bernard found Buzz's stomach to be normal, and said Buzz would need a full veterinary exam to find the underlying cause for his weight loss.

Majestic, an 8-year-old event mare, lives outside and showed just a few weeks ago. She eats quality feed pellets and corn oil, but is still thin. Shows don't create any behavioral changes in Majestic, says her owner. Bernard found her to have "good constitution of her stomach;" no ulcers were present.

Coffee, a 17-year-old appendix Quarter Horse, shows twice a year in local hunter and jumper classes. He eats a cup of sweet feed twice a day, and he spends half of his time outside. He receives a lot of medication for his low ringbone and arthritis, but he was found to have a normal stomach.

Chess, an 8-year-old Thoroughbred, events at the novice level. He eats pellets, corn oil, and hay, and he is outside at night. Chess just returned from a horse show in Florida. His owner was concerned he might have an ulcer because Chess grinds his teeth when ridden. Bernard found "a slight reddening in one portion of the stomach," which signals a potential site for an ulcer to form. Bernard called Chess' ulcer a grade 1, and Thompson recommended treatment with GastroGard followed by UlcerGard to prevent another ulcer in the future.

Keswick is a 14-year-old Preliminary event horse competing at summer shows. She lives at the same farm as Chess. "She doesn't carry weight very well, has a dingy coat, and doesn't eat in the barn very well," said Keswick's caretaker. "She also choked twice this past month, so now her feed is soaked." Bernard found a grade 1 ulcer in Keswick's stomach.

Scotty is a 12-year-old event horse who is starting training level. He shows throughout the year, and his owner recently noticed he dropped a lot of weight last month. "He hasn't picked up any weight since," she said, despite his diet of pasture, soybean meal, and grain. Scotty also cribs. Bernard found a grade 1 glandular ulcer. "Horses that have ulcers in the glandular portion (fundic, or bottom section) of their stomach are susceptible to ulcers in the duodenum as well, but it is hard to see down there (during a scoping procedure) because of the fluid that is still present in the horse's stomach," commented Thompson. Glandular ulcers are less common--approximately 15-20% of all ulcers--but she said, "Every horse is an individual."

Bonus is a 9-year-old Thoroughbred who foxhunts two times a week during the hunt season. He eats hay, grain, and pasture. His owner said, "He'll go through bouts where he won't eat grain, but tears into his hay and eats up it quickly." She mentioned that Bonus has had several bouts of colic recently, and Bernard discovered a grade 1 ulcer.

Farmer is a 10-year-old Throughbred who also foxhunts. He lives on the same farm as Bonus and has the same feed schedule. Farmer's owner commented on the roughness of his coat and likened it to sunburned hair. "He's dropped a lot of weight lately, even though he's as fit as he's ever been," she said. Bernard also found a grade 1 ulcer in Farmer's stomach.

About the Author

Marcella M. Reca Zipp, MS

Marcella Reca Zipp, M.S., is a former staff writer for The Horse. She is completing her doctorate in Environmental Education and researching adolescent relationships with horses and nature. She lives with her family, senior horse, and flock of chickens on an island in the Chain O'Lakes.

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