When I first got Basil he was a bit thin and was (and is) a crib biter! He did not eat a great amount of hay and ground his teeth. Turnout was limited where he was kept by his old owner and in his life before that, as a racehorse, the bulk in his diet would have been limited. Based on this background I fairly quickly decided that it was likely he had stomach ulcers. Over 80% of racehorses have been found to have ulcers and up to 70% of competition horses.
What are they?
Ulcers occur in the horse's stomach when digestive acids come into contact with the upper part of the stomach lining. Known as Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUC) the ulcers vary in severity from an inflamed stomach lining to erosion and bleeding of the stomach lining. In extreme cases there can be perforation of the stomach - which can be fatal.
What causes stomach ulcers in horses?
The horse's stomach secretes acid all the time, even when the stomach is empty. This acid is usually neutralised by the saliva produced in response to regular chewing. If the horse's stomach is empty this acid will attack the stomach lining.
These vary but can include:
- Poor performance
- Reduced appetite
- Altered temperament - difficult to ride, bucking, refusing at jumps
- Weight loss
- Teeth grinding
- Crib biting
- Back pain
- Peritonitis and death
Really the only accurate method of diagnosis is by gastroscopy. The horse’s oesophagus, stomach and duodenum are inspected. The ulcers are graded on a scale of 1 to 4 with 1 being mild thickening only to 4 being deep widespread ulcers. Bleeding does not relate to the depth or the severity of the ulcer.
How to prevent ulcers developing.
Chewing creates saliva, this is a natural antacid which helps to neutralise the acid in the stomach. So by 'trickle feeding' your horse (as they feed in the wild) you are ensuring they are chewing and producing saliva at all times. There is also constantly food in the stomach for the acid to work on. So keeping your horse at grass if possible and/or feeding ad lib hay is ideal. However, never forget that obesity brings its own problems!
Other ways to limit the chance of your horse developing ulcers are:
- Avoid feeding oats or other cereal grains (barley, maize etc). These starchy foods stimulate the stomach cells into producing more acid and grains tend to move through the stomach too quickly and so leaving the stomach empty.
- Feed sugar beet pulp instead of cereal grains. This has the same calories as oats but doesn't tend to cause excess acid production as starch does.
- If you need to feed extra fat choose vegetable sources that are high in omega 3 eg: flax or chia seeds - these will reduce the inflammation experienced with ulcers.
- Legumes such as alfalfa, soybean meal and split peas offer enough amino acids (which are the building blocks of protein) to allow proper maintenance and healing.
- Feed hindgut bacteria (the good bacteria). These make digestion more efficient and promote the synthesis of B vitamins which heal the digestive tract.
- You could also feed extra B vitamins, these are used up rapidly when a horse is in pain.
- Reduce stress. Stress can increase acid production so think about what stresses your horse; traveling, being left alone, change of routine etc.
I didn't have a gastroscopy for Basil but introduced some easy steps to try to reduce the problem. I fed him as much hay as he could eat and gradually he started eating more. He was turned out during the day (night in the summer). He doesn't have a cereal based mix, he has an alfalfa based feed. Although Basil still crib bites quite a lot and grinds his teeth when he wants to go in the field I feel he is better. He eats plenty of roughage and has practically no time, apart from when I ride, when his stomach is empty.
Look out for tomorrow's 'Mini Haul' video on my You Tube channel.
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Until next time!