What is one of the most prominent issues associated with owning a performance horse? For most people, it’s widely known to be the case of stomach ulcers and their effects on the horse’s health and performance. When talking with many people involved in the industry, it’s extremely apparent that this is an issue common throughout all disciplines and has no absolute prevention or cure. Even so, we as horse professionals need to keep ourselves educated about the negative effects of stomach ulcers and ways that we can help in a preventative and diagnostic approach. To begin, we need to first talk about the different manners in which ulcers appear and how that affects the body.
The foregut is home to 3 main types of gastric ulcers. The first being squamous ulcers, which affect the upper third part of the horse’s stomach. Second, are glandular ulcers, affecting the lower section of the stomach. Lastly, pyloric ulcers affect the area at the opening of the stomach into the small intestine.
Right dorsal colitis is the main culprit of ulcers affecting the hindgut; composed of ulcers irritating the upper right section of the colon. It is said that right dorsal colitis is commonly attributed to the use of Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NASIDs) and horses with a case of hindgut acidosis. Hindgut acidosis is attributed mainly to the impact of large quantities of undigested simple carbohydrates reaching the hindgut and overloading the production of lactic acid, in turn raising the acidity level in the hindgut. The overload of lactic acid eats away at the inner lining of the gut, leaving it vulnerable to ulceration.
A General Look at Causes
There are many causes that can be attributed to stomach ulcers and the impact that they have, especially considering the stress level of performance horses. Many of which makes sense when we look at how horses were designed to live and go about their lives in the wild. In the wild, horses forage on whatever grasses are available at that time of year; and to top it all off, they do it all day long. Some of the biggest changes we have made when domesticating horses have been the decrease in turnout time and availability to forage 24/7. Now, this is not to say that the horses in our barns are underfed. To understand this better, we need to remember that, unlike humans, a horse’s stomach secretes acid at all times. Their stomachs do this because the usual forage they find in the wild is not always of adequate nutrition (and again, they’re eating all the time). In most performance barns, there is high quality hay and the nutrition they gather from it is much more than they would find in the wild. When we limit our horse’s forage and supplement nutrition with a grain ration it causes over acidity thanks to periods of an empty stomach. For many performance horses, turnout is at best limited to only a few hours a day; and that is when conditions are normal and we are not away traveling to various events. Frequent travel, nutritional supplementation with grains, rigorous exercise, parasites, and use of NSAIDs, along with a change in the horse’s natural forage ration are all factors as to why we continuously see stomach ulcers raging through our barns.
Stomach Ulcer Symptoms
Many times, the symptoms of stomach ulcers can be confused for a horse not having his best day or even a bit of an attitude problem (especially if they are new to the barn). A few signs and symptoms that could be indicators of potential ulceration are:
- Overly sensitive in the flank area, especially for grooming
- Difficulty bending, collecting and extending
- Soft or loose manure
- Vices such as weaving, cribbing or wood chewing
- Blood in manure
- Low grade anemia
- Weight loss and low body condition
- Dulling of the coat
- Irritability when riding, tacking or grooming
- Back pain, unresponsive to local treatment
- Loss of appetite
Diagnostics on stomach ulcers can be difficult to obtain. Often times a veterinarian may suspect that stomach ulcers are a potential cause for a specific issue with a horse. They may recommend a provisional medication to treat and monitor its effects. However, the most definitive answer would be found with a gastric endoscopic exam. With a scope, horses will need to fast for 12 hours prior to the procedure. The issue of diagnostics with a scope arise because it is only able to get a visual into the foregut, any issues with hindgut ulcers and/or parasitic infestation are unable to be diagnosed via a gastric scope.
Diagnostics for the hindgut are less straightforward. Usage of an ultrasound requires a skilled veterinarian and the results are less definitive, as an ultrasound can only visualize up to 15 inches into the abdomen. Another form of diagnostics that can be useful for assessing hindgut ulcers is the use of a Ph test of the horse’s manure. A normal Ph level is 6.8, anything lower than 6.5 is a strong indicator of an acidic digestive tract.
There are many different forms of treatment for stomach ulcers in horses, however they must first be properly diagnosed. All treatment plans should be thoroughly discussed with a veterinarian prior to beginning treatment. There are many ways to go about treating ulcers but arguably the best solution is to remember the reasoning for how and why ulcers occur in the first place. “A stitch in time saves nine” and preventative measures are the sure way to keep ulcers from returning. Maintaining a knowledgeable staff within a barn to recognize the early signs of when something may be different is essential. Knowing how the horse’s body is structured and naturally intended to function can go a long way in keeping our creatures healthy and happy!