WHAT CAUSES EQUINE ULCERS
Did you know, the average horse’s stomach only holds a 2 to 4 gallon capacity? That is not a lot for a large animal, but it was designed to digest a small but steady graze of forage throughout the day and night. In fact, in their natural setting, you will see horses eat or graze, 16-20 hours a day for their stomachs to constantly secrete a saliva which contains the natural buffering agent, sodium bicarbonate along with digestive enzymes.
However, because we are humans and as the top species on earth, we like to bend other species to our will, and with horses, we have tried, unsuccessfully to force them to eat when we feed them and for them to be happy with that. It is no wonder 90% of performance horses are suffering from mild to severe stomach ulcers because our feeding practices don’t typically follow their natural routine or biochemistry.
When horses are fed “meals” at specific times, there are times during the day and especially overnight when the stomach is empty of feed or forage. Unfortunately, that is the time when the stomach is producing a strong gastric acid. In fact, horses can produce up to 16 gallons of acidic gastric juice over a 6 – 8 hour period of being void of roughage.
To get into a bit more detail, did you also know that the horse’s stomach is separated into upper and lower parts. The lower portion is lined by glandular mucosa and is where the acid is produced. That’s where the acid is meant to reside and digest food. The glandular mucosa has a thick mucus layer, blood flow, and naturally produced sodium bicarbonate, all of which protect the lower portion of the stomach from the acid.
The upper part of the stomach, however, is lined by squamous mucosa and doesn’t have the same protection from the acid. If the stomach doesn’t have any food in it, the acidic juice can accumulate and reach or splash up and come into contact with the upper, unprotected part of the stomach, burning the lining and causing painful stomach ulcer lesions. Unless you-yourself get heartburn, or have ulcers, you may not understand the irritation and pain they cause by eroding the stomach lining. In addition, the emptiness can bring on unwanted behaviors like wood sucking or fence chewing, just to get something in their stomach to calm the acids. Then this can be a habit-forming action when horses are stalled or bored.
Feed to Reduce the Risk of Ulcers:
Of course, the most natural way to feed a horse is to provide a grazing situation for most of the day, as their natural state is to graze out of necessity for 20 hours a day. As a horse owner, it is your responsibility to manage this by either feeding from pasture, round bail, slow-feeder tub, slow-feeder hay net, or sprinkle feeding are some of your options to reduce stomach acid stress.
By feeding a continuous long-stemmed roughage into the upper portion of the stomach, it will prevent acid from having much contact with the lining thus protecting against the acid splash. Simple right!
Let’s take a look at what happens when long periods of time go between forage meals and or you decide to work your horse on an empty stomach. If the stomach is mostly empty about six hours after finishing a meal and you ride at a speed or circles, the stomach contents move around more and are pushed upward by the contracting abdominal muscles. This means the likelihood of acid coming into contact with the poorly protected upper stomach lining increases. So, when you arrive at the barn to ride, and if your horse has not been fed since the previous night, the stomach contents has already moved on down the digestive tract, and there will not have been any saliva production for a long time. If the horse now works on an empty and poorly buffered stomach, there is certainly a greater risk that, over time, ulceration may occur.
The good news is that there are a couple of quick and easy things you can do that can reduce this risk. The first is to feed some hay while you are grooming before the ride. This will stimulate saliva production. Hay would be preferred at this time instead of a bagged grain ration. The grain ration will go through the stomach sections faster than a fibrous, long-stemmed hay will. Also, Alfalfa has a better buffering capacity than grass hay so, if you have the option, feeding a small amount of alfalfa hay or chopped alfalfa or cubes in this situation would be a great idea. As little as a pound of alfalfa cubes or pellets are helpful as alfalfa is naturally high in Calcium and takes more saliva and longer to go through the stomach than hay.
Then of course there is the option to administer a good stomach buffer supplement when you get to the barn, before taking up. A high calcium supplement or even a kelp/seaweed has the effect of neutralizing the acid in the lower stomach so it will not increase or splash to the upper and erode the stomach lining while you are riding. Most buffering products are safe and can be given daily if need be. They will help to reduce the acid splash pain and could be part of your overall ulcer management while incorporating them into your horse’s diet so you can have 90 minutes of happy horse and happy riding.
The best practice is as stated in this article …… feeding a continuous source of hay (long-stemmed roughage) will prevent acid from having much contact with the lining thus protecting against the acid splash. We suggest you try a low lying hay bag or slow feeder, 24 hours a day. And if that is not possible …. We now have an effective stomach acid buffering product – PUREFORM Buffer Support - for Stomach Acid Splash. Your horses will thank you - Happy trails.