Gastric ulcers in horses are a common problem, particular among racehorses and elite competition horses, although they can be suffered by horse of all ages and types, particularly if they have limited access to forage. Foals are also susceptible. Ulcers occur in the horse’s stomach when the digestive acids come in contact with the upper part of the stomach lining.
In a natural environment the horse will graze for up to 16hr a day, so the acidity is reduced by the forage passing through the stomach as well as by bicarbonate in the saliva that is produced as the horse chews. If stabled horses have access to ad-lib hay, haylage or grass, this natural preventative process continues. But if they are fed high-concentrate diets with only limited access to forage, the acidity in the stomach increases.
Any period without forage intake, whether due to management practices or illness, leads to increased gastric acidity and a risk of ulcers. Training which includes fast work increases the risk of the acid splashing around, resulting in damage the upper part of the stomach. Stress can also be a factor.
Diagnosing gastric ulcers in horses
There are no definitive external signs that a horse is suffering from gastric ulcers, but clues suggesting a performance horse may be suffering include:
attitude change (reluctance to work/not wanting to be tacked up)
poor body condition
To confirm that ulcers are present and what grade they are, a vet will use a video or fibreoptic endoscope to view the stomach lining of the horses (gastric endoscopy).
Treating gastric ulcers in horses
Gastric ulcers are most commonly treated with Gastroguard, a proton pump inhibitor, which is not cheap but is effective. A horse suffering from gastric ulcers will also need their management reviewed in order to reduce the likelihood of the ulcers reoccuring. Susceptible horses should have:
plenty of time at pasture
continuous access to forage when stabled
a reduced level of training
reduced levels of grain and concentrates in the diet