If your horse has ulcers, giving him GastroGard (omeprazole) isn't the only thing you can do to help reduce the severity of the problem. At the 2007 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 1-5 in Orlando, Fla., Noah Cohen, VMD, PhD, MPH, Dipl. ACVIM, professor of equine medicine at Texas A&M University, discussed a study that found alfalfa hay reduced the severity of ulcers in young, exercising horses.

Ulcers can reduce a horse's appetite and feed intake and cause weight loss, poor hair coat, colic, and reduced performance. Many factors can contribute to ulcers, including stall confinement, intensive exercise, feeding infrequent large meals, and stomach outflow obstruction.

In this study, 24 Quarter Horse yearlings were kept in small dry lots and fed two different diets for 28 days each, with a 21-day pasture washout period between. The first diet included coastal Bermuda grass hay and a 15% pelleted concentrate, while the other diet included the same amount of alfalfa hay and the same concentrate. All horses were exercised three times per week using a horse exerciser.

Ulcer scores were significantly lower for the alfalfa diet than for the Bermuda hay diet, and the 11 horses in the alfalfa group with ulcers at the beginning of the study all improved their ulcer score by at least two grades. However, one horse went the other direction, developing ulcers while on the alfalfa diet. Only five of the 12 horses starting the Bermuda diet with ulcers had ulcer score improvement, and only two of those improved by the two grades or more. Ulcers tended to be worse at the end of the Bermuda diet period.

Another notable finding was that while ulcer scores didn't change significantly from the end of the Bermuda diet to the end of the pastured washout period, they increased significantly from the end of the alfalfa diet to the end of the washout period.

"So only one of 23 horses fed alfalfa worsened vs. 16 of 24 on coastal Bermuda," Cohen summarized. "Eleven of 12 horses on alfalfa remained ulcer-free compared to only three of 12 on Bermuda."

He cautioned that not all alfalfa is created equal, and it's not yet known whether older horses or those exercising more intensely would see the same benefits.

"For some owners, the cost of (the FDA-approved omeprazole product) precludes its use, particularly for purposes of preventing ulceration," Cohen concluded. "Feeding alfalfa hay may represent a useful adjunct to antiulcer treatment for the control and prevention of equine gastric ulcer syndrome."

About the Author

Christy M. West

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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