Go Green – and think GREEN before you ride.

The incidence of “ulcers” (gastric ulceration) amongst performance and leisure horses is very frequent. Meaning that likely >50% of owners reading this article will have a horse that has been diagnosed and treated for “ulcers”.

The common management practices to help prevent and treat ulcers is also relatively well known and openly discussed. In this article we aim to give you some nitty gritty information, in terms of WHY it happens and WHAT you can do to reduce the chances of your exercising horse developing ulcers.

Here are the basics of what is known as Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS).

There are 3 areas of the stomach you need to understand. Imagine the stomach being cut in half – the upper portion is the non-glandular portion and the bottom is the glandular portion. The area that divides them is called the Margo Plicatus. Ulcers commonly arise on the bordering portion (margo plicatus) and the non-glandular region (the upper portion). The lining of the upper portion is protected from the stomach acid by bicarbonates and mucous. The mucous protects the lining, and the bicarbonates buffer the acid – aiming to make it less acidic, therefore less “harmful”.

Studies have shown that exercise increases the risk for ulceration in two ways. First off, the acid in an empty stomach splashes around and hits the upper (more vulnerable portion) of the stomach, burning it. Secondly exercise has been shown to increase the acidity of the stomach acid – meaning when it does splash, it’s even more acidic than a resting or spelling horse.

Of course, there is so much more here we could go into, but we diverge from the aim of this article

How can you help reduce the risk of ulcers during exercise of your horse?

The studies and evidence for common management practices varies between authors and studies. However, the overall message is the same. Horses are naturally built to thrive on a high fibre, low starch diet. So straight off you want to ensure that >70% of your horses diet is fibre or forage (such as hay), that is provided to them in the most consistent way throughout the day.

Now, prior to exercise, why do people recommend feeding your horse?

There are a few important points here for owners to take away.

By providing fibre into your horses’ stomach prior to exercise you are making it harder for stomach acid to “splash around” and damage your horses stomach lining. That is the basic message. We can however tweak it even more!

Feeding forage high in calcium and protein (ie: lucerne) has been shown to buffer the stomach acid, making it less acidic. So then if it does splash around it is less damaging to a degree. Saliva also has amazing buffering properties, so you want to feed something that your horse actually chews on, as this will provide the most saliva. Diets high in starch have been shown to increase the risk of ulcers by altering the pH, and also causing fluid to be drawn into the stomach – producing more acid fluid to splash around.

The tough bit is that horses’ in strenuous work contract their abdominal muscles, which actually decreases the size of their stomach – making it easier for acid to hit the upper portion, and restricting how much feed can be fed. There is some evidence to suggest that the addition of water and/or oil prior to exercise helps to further protect the stomach and dilute the acid.

Speak basic to me – so what’s the best feed prior to exercise?

Based on the information above, here are the take-away points.

  • We want something the horse will chew so they produce saliva. This is best done using hay or hay cubes. Chaff unfortunately does not really require much chewing.
  • We want to provide the most fibre in the smallest volume, as we know a horses’ stomach will contract. This means hay cubes are beneficial over hay, as hay takes up a bigger volume.
  • We want hay with low starch, high protein and high calcium – this is most consistently lucerne hay. Teff Hay is also consistency low in starch making it an ideal addition to lucerne.
  • Hay Cubes also provide the user with the ability to soak them and add water, which some evidence suggests helps decrease stomach acidity. Not to mention it aids in hydration!
  • We also want something palatable, no mess and easy to use and feed out – Hay Cubes!

The recommendation is to feed your horse about 30 minutes prior to exercise. These recommendations are also recommended for horses prior to travelling in a float.

Article by Dr. Sabine Ware BVSc CERP.

Sabine has been riding and competing horses for over 20 years, and working as an Equine Vet for over 10 years.

She currently runs an Equine Practice at her farm in Seymour Victoria aimed at a whole horse, holistic approach to their care and she has a particular interest in balance dentistry, nutrition, pain management and rehabilitation. Her business is known as Equine Health, Spine & Dentistry.