The Whole Ulcer Thingy

The Problem with Horse Ulcers

People call us all the time asking do we carry ulcer supplements for horses and judging by feedback there are numerous companies that will be more than happy to make that claim however erroneous it may be.

We basically have a systemic problem with gastric ulcers in horses with an estimate of 65%-70% of performance horses and over 90% of racehorses being affected. We are also overwhelmed with a multitude of horse digestion supplements making all kinds of claims to “fix” ulcers.

So first of all let’s deal with some important facts. There are two products, Gastroguard™ and Ulcergard™, that are drugs for the specific purpose of treating gastric ulcers. That’s it there are no other products that have been shown in research to effectively treat ulcers period!

Stomach Ulcers

 I know that many riders use these drugs on a preventative basis. We would strongly urge against using these drugs on a prophylactic basis.  Prolonged usage will play havoc with the horse’s microbiome. This can result in a multitude of other problems when those beneficial bacteria in the microbiome are depleted the key attributes of fiber digestion, immune support, energy can all be affected to name just a few potential implications. If you horse has been checked and ultimately an endoscopy is the only surefire method to identify whether your horse has gastric ulcers at that point treat with Gastroguard/Ulcergard as prescribed and then stop.

Now we get into the bewildering array of horse digestion supplements containing  ingredients like slippery elm, licorice, marshmallow root, gamma oryzanol, aloe vera, aluminum phosphate, dihydroxy-aluminum sodium, zeolites to name a few.

All of these ingredients in horse digestion supplements are trying to help the horse recover from treatment for ulcers or to support the ability of the horse to potentially reduce the risk of problems in the first place.

Why are we experiencing such a high level of gastric ulcers in performance and racing horses? There is not actually a simple answer.

The primary causes of gastric ulcers in horses are a combination of factors. Horses evolved to graze for a significant portion of every 24 hour period and during that time the glandular or lower part of the horse’s stomach secretes hydrochloric acid that mixes with the feed and starts to break it down before it passes into the small intestine. In the ideal scenario the horses eat slowly allowing time for the stomach to work more efficiently and for buffering saliva to be produced to protect the stomach. Currently however a majority of performance horses and racehorses are confined to stalls and are often fed high levels of grain concentrates, something they did not evolve to eat, placing an extra burden on the whole GI tract. In addition horses are exposed to high levels of stress, whether from performing at shows, trailering, strenuous exercise and other factors. Horses are sociable animals and in a stall setting are unable to mingle and hang out with their friends to talk about politics, how they enjoyed dinner the night before and any other topics of interest.

These circumstances often result in excess levels of acid splashing against the non-glandular or upper portion of the stomach which does not have the same level of protective coating as the glandular portion. There is another phenomenon that flies in the face of the normally accepted pathway for ulcers and that is horses on pasture getting ulcers when they are supposedly eating the right way. At Grand Meadows we believe this is as a result of bacteria passing through gaps in the intestinal villi that line the length of the small intestine. We took particular interest in this aspect – because the prebiotic that we use in our equine digestion supplement and a number of our other horse supplements has been shown in research to increase the density and surface area of these intestinal villi thereby potentially mitigating the “leaking” effect of these bacteria.

The option of turning your horse out to establish a feeding regimen more in line with how horses evolved to eat is not necessarily available, particularly in urban environments, so what can you do to reduce the risk of these issues when your horse is confined to a stall? We strongly encourage free choice forage so that your horse can keep a steady stream of feed passing through the stomach to absorb the hydrochloric acid .Feeding horse digestion supplements that can either coat the stomach as many of the herbal formulas represent or use an ingredient like zeolites , as we do, to absorb excess stomach acids. Try to reduce stress as much as possible, whether through changes in the horse’s riding program and/or through the use of horse calming supplements. Reduce the amount of grain in the horse’s diet. Horses  produce less saliva when they  chew grains, so they lose some of the buffering effect that comes with consuming forages. Grains and other concentrates also stimulate the production of a hormone in the stomach that converts sugars and starches into volatile fatty acids, which can increase the damage to his stomach lining.

Unfortunately there is not a magic bullet for the epidemic of gastric ulcers in horses. Horse digestion supplements can definitely help in potentially reducing the risk of a problem and helping horses recover but ultimately it seems that there will always be a combination of reasons why this issue has reached the level of an epidemic amongst performance horses. Sadly given the limited availability of grazing land for horses, the punishing regimen of training/showing and racing and other factors it is hard to see this problem going away any time soon.

by Nick Hartog

In 1994, Nick Hartog became an owner and President of Grand Meadows Equine Supplements bringing his talents and extensive background in domestic and international equine sales and manufacturing. He has a reputation for plain speaking of the truth. In 1997, when the US horse supplement market was something akin to the Wild West with a complete lack of standards, Nick personally tested 32 different horse joint supplements to see if they matched the label. Unsurprisingly, to him at least, only 2 products matched the label claim. Read more...