We all know that people can develop ulcers from stress, but did you know that horses can as well? Diet, exercise and training as well as competition and lifestyle changes can all cause ulcers in horses. New research shows that as many as 40% of all competition horses, including race horses, dressage horses and jumpers are likely to have some form of ulcers due to a combination of factors.
Ulcers in horses, medically known as equine gastric ulcer syndrome, have been the center of many research programs in competitive horses. Many times the very changes that the owner makes to prepare the horse for show actually contribute to the development of the ulcer, which is a lesion or sore in the lining of the stomach caused by an over-production of digestive acid. In horses, stomach acid is continually produced, since a horse that is on pasture will normally graze about 18 hours a day. When owners bring competition horses in off of the pasture and feed them high quality feeds in regular rations, the horse may only be eating one or two hours a day, leaving much more time for the stomach acid to be in direct contact with the stomach lining when food is not present. In addition the horse's saliva is designed to neutralize stomach acid, so when a horse is constantly grazing and swallowing he or she is controlling the stomach acidity. When grazing and swallowing is less frequent, the overall acidity of the stomach increases. It is important to note that even providing free choice hay in a stall is not the same as grazing. Horses will typically eat far less hay than grass, likely because it swells in the stomach, giving the impression of being full. The high concentrate feeds also contribute to decreasing the amount of hay consumed.
High levels of training on a daily basis also contribute to ulcers. This again is a direct result of not doing what a horse in the wild would do, normally spend most of the day eating. It may also, some researchers believe, be a hormonal issue that causes extra stomach acid to be released when horses are under demanding training routines.
The more changes that happen in a horse's life the more stress he or she will be under. Changes from pasture to stall, trailering, high training periods followed by relaxation, new stables and new riders, changing locations and even changing companion horses can cause additional stress and increased chances of ulcers. Keeping routines very structured and minimizing sudden changes in feed, exercise and training is important if the horse is high strung or has a history of digestive problems.
The signs of ulcers will vary but are commonly noted as change in performance, lethargy, colic, weight loss, poor coat and poor appetite. Confirmation of ulcers must be done with an endoscopic examination that allows the vet to look at the stomach to check for the lesions associated with ulcers.
Medications can be used to heal the lesions, regular diet and return to pasture, monitoring exercise and limiting stress is essential for the long term health of the horse.