It has been discovered that it is extremely likely that over half of the horses that are showing and competing have stomach ulcers. So why are horses that are athletes so prone to developing this ailment? Well let’s start with looking at how the horse’s digestive system works. A horses stomach is pretty small…it only can hold 2-4 gallons! This means that food stays there for a limited period of time. Acid in a horse’s stomach is constantly being produced, unlike humans where acid is only produced when we eat. Therefore, when the stomach is empty, which happens very quickly due to its small size, acid is still being produced and it accumulates, irritating the stomach. Horses were designed to graze, which involves eating small meals of forage throughout the day while they are moving across pasture. Obviously, this way of living prevents the stomach from being empty for too long, thus preventing ulcers.
Now let’s compare this to how show horses are kept in today’s world. Often times, they are confined to stalls for the majority, if not all, of the day. They usually get only two meals per day, once in the morning and once in the late afternoon. Some people institute a third feeding at lunch or later that evening, but nonetheless, the horse still has times when it goes for at least a few hours without anything to munch on. Show horses also tend to get fed more grain than what their bodies are really designed for because people are trying to keep up their calorie intake due to the demands of competition. Acid production increases when grain intake increases, which is obviously not ideal for the horse. Furthermore, stress on athletes is undeniable. Whether it is traveling, being in unfamiliar environments, or the high performance demands on their bodies, equine athletes go through plenty of situations that could cause anxiety. Stress causes decreased blood flow to the stomach, leaving it once again, more prone to ulcers. It is also important to note that NSAIDs can have a detrimental effect on the horse as well after prolonged use and can cause damage to the stomach.
So how do you know if your horse has ulcers? Some common signs include: decreased appetite, weight loss, a sour attitude, or bouts of colic. Obviously the ailments listed above can be caused by a multitude of other things. It is important to note however, how it is incredibly likely your show horse could have ulcers and take that into consideration when evaluating your animal. Also, horses could have ulcers and not exhibit any outward signs. The only way to know for sure is to get your veterinarian involved.
So how do I keep my horses from getting ulcers without ceasing from competition?! Obviously, the show horse industry is not going anywhere and we all need ways to cope with how horses have to be handled to compete and how they are naturally made. The most important management technique is small meals throughout the day, with the focus being on forage. If it is possible, give your horse a good bit of turnout time. If not, then make sure they have free choice hay in front of them for most of the time. Some low calorie grass hay fed in small amounts throughout the day will not cause most horses to gain weight. If weight gain is a concern for some that are easy keepers, a nibble net that only allows the horse to eat very small amounts through a bag that has holes cut out of it, is a good option. Split grain into at least 3-4 feedings and make sure you are not feeding more concentrates than what your horses actually needs. The less of the grain the better! Also, pay attention to things that could possibly stress your horse. Make sure he is not isolated and can see other horses. Also make note of his behavior when trailering and at shows so you know what causes him to stress and then next time you travel or compete, you can take measures to deal with that and prevent it.
All of us horse enthusiasts love showing and competing and do not want to give that up…and you shouldn’t have to! All we have to do is take notice of some management techniques to implement in order to keep our athletes happy, healthy, and performing at their best.