Ouch, an Ulcer!

Learn the ins and outs of gastric ulcers to reduce your performance horse’s likelihood of experiencing this painful disruption.

Gastric, or stomach, ulcers are sores that develop in your horse’s stomach lining. Most horse owners, when they hear stomach ulcers, immediately think of horses under stress. However, they’re incredibly common. Roughly half or more of horses will develop stomach ulcers at some point.

Prolonged travel, new environments, and intense training can increase a horse’s likelihood of developing ulcers. Performance horses can’t always avoid these stressors, so it’s important to keep your horse as comfortable as possible when you’re prepping or heading to a competition. Photo by Nichole Chirico

Built for the Grasslands

Horses are built to graze and eat frequent, small-portion meals throughout the day. Given this adaptation, horses produce stomach acid constantly for digestion. When your horse’s stomach has regular and prolonged exposure to those acids, ulcers develop in the area. This is like gastroesophageal reflux disease syndrome (GERDS), or acid reflux in humans.

When horses are fed less frequently, such as twice daily, the stomach goes long periods without feed to neutralize the acid. Physical and environmental stressors such as transportation and stall confinement can also contribute to the likelihood of developing ulcers. Further, regularly giving some nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as phenylbutazone, flunixin meglumine, or ketoprofen can impact the production of protective mucus in the stomach, making it more susceptible to ulcers.

Stomach ulcers can occur in any horse, but they’re most common in performance horses that engage in regular exercise. This is because exercise increases gastric acid production and decreases blood flow to the GI tract. During exercise, stomach acid fluid is also more prone to splashing and reaching the more vulnerable portions of the stomach.

Ouch, That Hurts!

While there is limited immediate risk, ulcers can cause your horse minimal to severe discomfort. He might experience colic, poor appetite that can lead to weight loss or poor body condition, or attitude changes because of the pain.

Since any horse may be prone to developing them, pay close attention to your horse’s body composition, haircoat, and attitude for signs of potential ulcers. He might be unwilling to perform as usual, exhibiting resistance or moodiness. He may be picky and have a low appetite, which can lead to weight loss and body condition and coat changes. Some horses may get upset when you tighten their cinch, stomp, or grind or clench their teeth. If you notice a sudden change in your horse, reach out to your veterinarian for support.

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If you suspect your horse has ulcers, your vet can complete a gastroscopy by placing an endoscope into the stomach. A less invasive treatment option would be to try management methods and note if there’s improvement in your horse’s attitude and eating habits. Fortunately, ulcers are treatable and can heal as quickly as a few weeks.

Keeping Him Happy and Healthy

Since any horse can develop ulcers, you may wonder about treatment and management options to reduce your horse’s likelihood of developing them.

  • Feed often: First, if possible, feed your horse frequently or offer free-choice grazing options such as pasture turnout since consistent forage can buffer the acid in the stomach. Plus, your horse’s saliva is a protective antacid.
  • Stick with forage: High roughage diets also increase your horse’s saliva production. Some studies also have found that horses that are fed alfalfa hay have less acidity and lower gastric ulcers than those fed bromegrass hay. That’s because the high protein and calcium levels in alfalfa hay buffers the stomach acids.
  • Minimize grain: If possible, reduce the amount of grain and concentrates you feed your horse as high-grain diets produce volatile fatty acids that can increase your horse’s stomach ulcer risk.
  • Avoid NSAIDS: Minimize the use of anti-inflammatory drugs, if possible, or work with your veterinarian to find an alternative that is less inflammatory, such as firocoxib.
  • Reduce stress: Frequent, prolonged travel and intense training can increase your horse’s likelihood of developing ulcers. While it’s not always possible for performance horses to avoid these stressors, do your best and aim to keep your horse comfortable and recovered during road trips and intense training cycles.
  • Treat with paste: Horses with severe gastric ulcers may be prescribed an acid pump inhibitor. Omeprazole, found in GastroGard paste, can be given to your horse daily for a month for treatment. After that, a half dose can be administered for prevention.
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