Tuesday, February 21, 2012

More Than I Ever Wanted To Know About Ulcers

There have been several of us in blogger land that have had to deal with the Ulcer issue these last few months and a few that have wondered if they might be, so I thought I would compile the information I have gathered into a post...or maybe 2 or 3 as it is a lot of information.

I'm pretty sure that everyone knows what an ulcer is and due to the heightened awareness of how susceptible horses are to them, most everyone knows the new Horsie 101 rule of feeding: Keeping feed more available so that horses always have a bit of something in their stomachs to absorb gastric juices.

It just so happens that the new QHJournal has an article that explains that a little more in depth;

Low stomach pH is a major cause of gastric ulceration in adult horses. Low stomach pH is a result of high gastric acid levels in the stomach. The equine stomach continuously secretes gastric acid. Gastric acid levels are lowest when the horse is consuming feed. Feed consumption also stimulates the production of saliva, which is high in biocarbonate that neutralizes the low pH of the gastric acid. Stomach pH decreases six hours after feeding. therefore horses should be on pasture or fed hay continuously or at least every six hours to keep the gastric pH in balance.
(The American Quarter Horse Journal-February 2012)

Here is a little tidbit in the same article that I found interesting, especially since I feed straight grass hay:

Horses fed a legume hay, such as alfalfa or perennial peanut hay that is high in protein and calcium, have a significantly higher gastric pH than horses fed straight grass hay. However, it only takes about three pounds of the legume hay per day to obtain the higher pH effect. The high calcium and protein in the legume hay has a protective effect on the stomach mucosa.
(The American Quarter Horse Journal-February 2012)

Barring a problem, such as acute founder, such a small amount required to reap the benefits is unlikely to even cause problems or unwanted weight gain (for those of us that have horses that lean a bit toward the heavy side). Now I really wished I had gone with my gut instinct to buy some alfalfa last year for Moon.

So that is roughage in a nutshell. Roughage, provided in a manner that benefits the equine digestive system, is the first line of defense against gastric distress and/or ulcers. However, once that digestive balance becomes severely upset, more needs to be done to bring the balance back. Horsie 101 is now over.

You can basically divide horses into 2 groups-Performers and Non-performers. Most ulcer studies are done in regards to performance horses as they are more likely to have problems than non-performers. Whether we like it or not, when a horse is in training or being competed on, you cannot just kick them out on the back 40 and pull them up when you want to ride. However, most good training facilities and/or competitors have gotten wiser about the benefits of turn-out, larger pens and do try to create a less unnatural living environment for the horses, that still allows them to be maintained at the higher standards required. There is another probable reason why horses in training have higher instances of gastric distress/ulcers that has nothing to do with stress and I will again quote the article in the QHJ:

Horses in training have greater severity and higher prevalence of gastric ulcers. Exercise can cause delayed gastric emptying and increased gastric acid secretion. This might be caused by the increased intra-abdominal pressure and resulting gastric compression during exercise. This increased pressure pushes acidic contents into the section of the stomach nearest the esophagus, which is where most ulcers occur.
(The Quarter Horse Journal-February 2012)

There is actually no proof that one discipline, i.e. Western Vs. English Vs. Racing has a higher rate of ulcers than another. Western Pleasure horses are just as likely to have ulcerations as a Barrel Racing horse. A Hunter/Jumper is just as likely to have them as a Dressage horse. Certain disciplines are definitely more aware of the propensity for their horses to be ulcer candidates and that is why we hear more from some groups than we do others.

The excerpt above also explains what happens to a horse's gut when they are hauled. The very act of standing in a trailer and balancing while going down the road tends to make a horse use his abdominal wall, which can cause the gastric acids to rise above the normal level of protection in the stomach. Before anyone thinks that they need to start treating their horse every time they load him in the trailer...remember, we are talking performance horses here...these are horses who are hauled 10-100X's more miles than the non-performance horse AND when they get to where they are going, they know they have to compete so their stress level stays continually higher. Problems arise not from the rare occasion (unless there was already an underlying issue), but from repeated exposure of unprotected parts of the stomach to gastric acids.

The same could be said for riding. Just because a non-performance horse is ridden regularly does not necessarily make them as prone to develop ulcers as a performance horse. Typically the non-performance horse has a much lower stress level when being ridden and they are seldom asked to use their abdominal muscles as much or as continuously as a performance horse is.

I kind of hate to keep using the word 'stress', because there is often a negative connotation associated with it. People automatically assume the word stress means to the point of distress-either mentally or physically. Wiki (I know...I know...not always the best reference material) has a much more elaborate explanation, more along the lines of the way I am using the word...STRESS.

Horses kept at their owner's homes or at private facilities obviously have advantages over horses that are kept at public and often busy training/boarding facilities. There is often less activity, so the horses are more relaxed overall. And while most public facilities are on rigid feeding schedules, private/home care is more likely to throw a flake of hay to a horse that is without something to nibble on or make changes that are designed to keep the horse happy, relaxed and content.

As we all know, some things are completely out of our control and when things start going wrong with a horse's digestive system, those big, burly horses can become like delicate little hot-house flowers. Not getting it figured out can lead to ugly bouts of distress, colic and even death.

To Be Continued...


Unknown said...

Great post! I am thinking of how to handle our move and how to ensure feeding goes well since I've been a boarder forever. This was a big help...

Laura said...

great post - keep it coming! :-)

I have only had to deal with ulcers once so far... interesting stuff to learn about.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. We have been through the ulcer thing with 3 of ours and I'll do anything to avoid doing it again. Prevention is far superior to treatmnent, and cheaper too.

Fantastyk Voyager said...

good information. Thanks for sharing.

Crystal said...

Good info, but it mostly should make sense about feeding all day or at least more times a day, we know its normal for horses to eat all day and they have little stomachs. ALthough I did not know about the alfalfa or about using the abdominal muscles, so keep the info coming, the more we know the better. I am lucky enough that I dont think I have ever had to deal with an ulcer (fingers crossed)

Funder said...

Great post! The only thing I have to add is that 2-3 lbs of alfalfa daily also seems to help endurance horses metabolically. This is a highly informative post, if you really want to know a lot more about alfalfa and endurance horses :) The takeaway is that a little alfalfa is good for a lot of reasons.

Cut-N-Jump said...

When hubby's mare coliced, then again a month later, shed an ungawdly amount of weight in the process and looked like something we had picked up at the auction lot, we figured she had ulcers from the high doses of Banamine injected to get her through the colic.


We put her on straight alfalfa and she was back to good in nothing flat.

When hauling our horses to competitions, we space out the events. One or two a month and nothing more. When we get where we are going- we let the horses stand while we get checked in, come back, unload and let them see things from the side of the trailer while tied. We lunge them before harnessing up or getting on. Give them another chance to settle in, breathe and relax...

So far Kat is handling things well enough and ulcers aren't a big issue for him. But some horses are 'delicate' and get stressed out over the littlest things. It depends on the horses an their personality as well as their mentality.