6 Things to Know About Gastric Ulcers That Could Change How You Manage Your Horse

6 Things to Know About Gastric Ulcers That Could Change How You Manage Your Horse

Abby Keegan MS, PAS, is a Feed Nutrition for ProElite Feeds. Abby recently hosted a live Q&A for our Masterclass members in the private Masterclass Facebook group. Want to join in on the next one? Sign up today

As many of us know and recognize, horses were historically built to have many small meals throughout the day. They roamed for long periods of time over many miles on pretty lackluster forage that was available back then.They were consuming something constantly.

In today’s environment, that can be a bit more challenging. Horses are in stalls, on trailers, being ridden, put in the crossties for long periods of time. We have to come up with creative management solutions and really think about how we are feeding them today.

1. Chewing is the most important mechanism for buffering your horse's stomach. 

First, let's understand the mechanics at play: As horses consume feed through their mouths, it flows through the esophagus into their stomach. The top portion of the horse’s stomach is that non-glandular mucosa. It does not handle acidic environments very well. The bottom portion is the glandular mucosa, which has a pH of 1 to 2, so that tissue is better supported for that really acidic environment. Naturally, when a horse consumes something, it is chewing. Chewing produces saliva. Saliva is number one; if we can encourage saliva production, we’re doing a good job. The way a horse is going to produce saliva is not by thinking about food (like how your mouth might water when you think about pizza), it’s actually molar contact. They have to actually be actively eating something to produce saliva, which has a pH around 8.71, so it is pretty basic and acts as a nice buffer. 

What are creative ways to keep horses chewing? Hay. Forage should be the foundation of the horse’s diet. Normally, if your horse gets two or three meals a day, we are putting flakes of hay on the ground or wherever they’re fed. Now, we have these wonderful things called nibble nets, or small hole haynets, that have 1-1.5 inch square openings that we can place our forage into.

The University of Minnesota did some nice studies looking at how long it takes a horse to consume their hay, because we are talking about having them chew hay for longer periods of time throughout the day. Horses used to chew hay and forages for eighteen hours a day. What they found was a normal allotment of forage at morning and at night in their stall, not in a haynet, took about three hours apiece for them to consume. So, that’s six hours a day versus eighteen. That’s not good, we’ve got a lot of time where the horse’s stomach is exposed to acid. There is nothing in there to buffer it and the horse is not producing saliva by chewing. They used the nibble nets and found that it would take the horse about six hours in the morning and six hours at night to consume the hay, so about twelve hours a day. We’re getting much closer to the eighteen hours that would happen in nature.

I know haynets can be a little bit of a pain because they require manual labor. It might be a good discussion to think about a way you can ask the barn managers and people who actually feed your horse to do that, maybe even compensating them because it is extra labor and cost to put that hay in the net. When you think about how it slows your horse’s consumption down and keeps them chewing more hours of the day, which buffers that stomach acid, in comparison to medications and procedures, the cost is probably pretty limited, so it is something to think about. 

2. Alfalfa is an effective stomach buffer... but timing is important. 

Another thing we talk about from a buffering perspective is using alfalfa hay. We know from several studies that including a couple pounds of alfalfa hay per feeding will have a really nice buffering effect and we’ve seen reduced ulcer sores. It’s due to the calcium content, and the magnesium and protein levels as well. If we can incorporate some alfalfa into the diet, that works really nicely as a buffer.

If you don’t have alfalfa hay, there are also some new feed-through buffers that are becoming available. There are some marine-derived calcium sources that are a different kind of calcium that work from a buffering aspect versus actual nutrients. The thing to remember with those, and they’re wonderful and do actually have a buffering effect, is that the horse’s stomach will empty every two to three hours. If we feed a buffer or a meal of alfalfa, and that horse goes six hours without eating anything, their stomach has long been emptied and that effect is gone. We really have to think about how we continually supply these things. Are we coming out every two to three hours and supplementing? Maybe not. Is there a time in the morning where we can put alfalfa in a nibble net? That might be a better game plan.

"We really have to think about how we continually supply these things."

The glandular portion of the stomach is meant to have the low pH/acidic environment and we want to prevent any kind of sloshing into the top portion. If we go to put the horse into work, they’re bouncing around and hopefully lifting themselves, and that acid can slosh up into the upper non-glandular portion of the stomach. Obviously, ulcers can be created. How can we minimize that? We can look at buffering effects or we can look at having some kind of feed plan in there. Have we gotten some hay into them before we go to ride them, or are we riding them on an empty stomach? That can really help with the buffering effects. 

3. Measure the starch your horse is consuming! 

Another thing we want to look for is starch in the diet. Our goal is keeping the total grams of starch per meal below one gram of starch per kilogram of body weight per meal. What does that mean? What we would do is go look at our feed tag. Hopefully, your feed tag for whatever you’re using will have the dietary starch maximum listed on the label. If they don’t, you can call the manufacturer, but hopefully they are starting to list that for you. It’s a nice guarantee to know the maximum dietary starch that would ever be formulated in the feed. We know that, even if we use the same ingredients in every batch of feed, they are grown in nature and are naturally going to have different nutrient levels. We’ve got to make sure we are accounting for that in our production facilities and in our formulation. Measuring those is key.

We want to understand the dietary starch max and we convert that by how much we are feeding in a meal. For example, if we are feeding a 1400 pound horse 7 pounds of a 20% starch feed (it has a max of 20% dietary starch), we would take .2 and multiply it by that 7 pounds and multiply that by 454 to convert it to grams. Then, we would divide that amount of grams of starch by the horse’s body weight in kilograms. That example is the very max we would want you to feed a horse to stay below that 1 gram of starch per kilogram of body weight per meal. So, no more than 20% starch in the feed and no more than half a percent of the horse’s body weight in a meal. Ideally, you’re feeding something with a little less starch, but more importantly is how many pounds are in the meal. If you have to feed a feed with 20% starch (because sometimes we have these performance horses where we have to replenish their muscle glycogen with starch) we would want to make sure we stayed below that half a percent of body weight in a meal to make sure we are not feeding them more than a gram of starch per kilogram of body weight. 

4. Stress is unavoidable, but thinking about how we manage it is key. 

Another thing people asked about is reducing stress, which can be tough with performance horses. If we think about herd mates, maybe there is a horse in the barn that is driving them nuts or a horse they prefer to be near. Think about how we are stalling them: can we move them around to reduce stress? Can we hand walk them? These competition horses are stalled most the time and it can get challenging. What should we do when we travel? Getting a pre-travel game plan together is a great idea, at least a couple weeks ahead of time.

I would also definitely have the conversation with your veterinarian about Gastroguard. For some horses, we are giving them a preventative dose before we haul them, a couple days before the haul and a couple days afterwards as well. It’s important to think about how that is a proton pump inhibitor. We’re stopping that acid secretion or slowing it down, but once we take them off of it the cycle is going to happen all over again. How do we have that tissue ready and how do we have that horse more acclimated?

From a nutrition standpoint, minimizing change is really important. I know that sounds tough because we are changing environments, but how can we keep their diet as consistent as possible? One of the things I ask folks to do is investigate what you’ve got for hay supply. Can you get a hold of enough bales of hay to get the horse acclimated to that particular crop cutting a few weeks ahead of time, throughout the haul, and for at least a week while you are at your new facility? We’re all taught as youngsters that changing feed has a huge impact on horses, but changing hay has a significant impact as well. Hay is not all the same, even if it comes from the same supplier. Every single cutting from a field is going to be different depending on the maturity of that forage. If you can get a hold of something to at least have that be a consistent part of their diet, I think that’s a really nice element.

When we talk about the horse’s microbiome, we’re talking about the bugs in their gut, how acclimated they are to digesting whatever it is that we are feeding them. By keeping that consistent, that is one less thing that has to get upset. Another thing to think about would be feeding before loading. We can make sure before the haul that they’ve had their meal, they’ve eaten enough hay, and they have that protective mat in their stomach. Then, we can take off. We want the trailer to be equipped with some kind of forage that we discussed earlier. Hopefully it has some alfalfa in it for some extra buffering capacity. Depending on the hauler and if there is some kind of feed tub or hay bag in the trailer, talk with them ahead of time to make sure you can have forage in front of these horses the entire trip. A lot of people will haul with alfalfa cubes or alfalfa pellets if that makes more sense in the situation, but have them chewing, making that molar contact, and producing saliva throughout the entire trip.

5. Nourish the stomach lining (and the deal with probiotics). 

Something else to think about is selecting a feed to nourish the lining of the stomach. It’s important to make sure we have enough amino acids in the diet. Amino acids are critical when it comes to tissue and lining of the digestive system.

Another thing is pre/probiotics. Look for a product that has prebiotics, which are food for the good bugs that live in the horse’s gut (the microbiome) and keeps them happy. Probiotics add good live bugs to the feed that go into the horse’s gut. On the tag of the feed, you would look for CFUs, or colony forming units, to see if they are live and viable. Talk with the manufacturer and make sure that they are using a form of probiotic that is encapsulated and designed to survive that pelleting process.

Another thing you could look for to nourish that stomach lining is organic complexed zinc in the feed. Zinc is a big driver of that tissue lining. We’ve started to learn more and more these past few years about leaky gut syndrome, where the tight junctions that hold the microvilli together can break up and allow pathogens to come through where they shouldn’t. In heat stressed animals, we’ve seen that adding zinc can help them with this. 

6. Follow the feeding directions on the bag. 

Another thing that is helpful, and this might sound really simple, is feeding to the manufacturer’s directions. We spend a ton of time putting together these diets. We look at the best forages and the worst forages to determine where our feed rates need to be so that when you feed to a horse’s body weight, they are getting everything they need to balance out the forage.

That’s one ask I have of everybody. Go to the barn if you’re able to and, once you know the horse’s weight, grab the bag of feed or diet balancer and look at the tag directions to make sure your horse is getting the proper amount for their body weight. Another key thing there is talking with the manufacturer to learn how the feed is designed. Are the feeding directions designed to make sure your horse stays out of a deficiency? That’s very different from making sure they have optimal nutrition for performance. 

Photos by Agne Bekeraityte for NoelleFloyd.com 

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