Alfalfa Might Buffer Gastric Acid Production, Prevent Ulcers

A change in diet can be good for what ails you--even if you are a horse.

Research from Texas A&M University showed that feeding alfalfa to horses either prevented or was therapeutic in treating stomach ulcers.

"Something in alfalfa hay tends to buffer acid production," said Pete Gibbs, PhD, Extension horse specialist.

According to Gibbs, 30% of the one million horses in Texas are used in racing, showing, and competitive performance. Of these, up to 90% of racehorses and more than 50% of arena performance horses have ulcers of varying severity.

Feeding grain, confinement, exercise, and overall environmental stress factors are thought to cause ulcers, he said. It's commonly thought that horses turned out on pastures are better off than those that are confined. However, if grass hay is the only hay they are fed, this research suggests that the horses might be more likely to get gastric ulcers, Gibbs said.

The recent research project correlating type of hay to likelihood of ulcers was part of a master's degree thesis by Travis Lybbert, PhD, in collaboration with the College of Veterinary Medicine. Gibbs served on Lybbert's academic research committee.

In the study, 24 Quarter Horse yearlings were separated into two treatment groups. One group was fed Bermuda grass hay and the other fed alfalfa hay to meet the daily roughage needs. The yearlings received forced exercise during the study.

The horses were examined internally with an endoscope at the beginning and end of two 28-day trials.

In this study, the horses had more ulcers when alfalfa was removed from their diets and they were turned out on pasture.

To apply the results of this study to their own herd management, horse owners--especially those with performance horses--can give their horses a pharmaceutical product that will decrease acid production, or they can manage horses' diets.

The second option does not stop acid production but offers buffering capabilities, Gibbs said. Further work is needed to look at horses with varying degrees of ulceration in order to better determine the full extent to which alfalfa or alfalfa-based products might help from a feeding management standpoint.

"Based on what we know right now--for horses that are kept in confinement, eating feed, and getting forced exercise--it makes sense to consider some alfalfa as part of their diet," he said.

Gibbs' initial recommendation is that horses weighing between 1,000-1,300 pounds should be fed about one pound of alfalfa after a grain meal.

According to Gibbs, this study lays the groundwork for further research at Texas A&M. The next phase of the research effort will investigate what it is about alfalfa and alfalfa products that lessens the occurrence and severity of horses' ulcers.

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