Lately your horse has seemed a bit dull. He’s cinchy when you tack up, and pins his ears when you ask him to lope. His coat isn’t shiny anymore, and his ribs are peeking through his flesh. He’s also had leftover grain the past few days after his meals. Call me the Ulcer Police, but I’d say there’s a good chance your horse has equine ulcers. I have seen many horses come through my barns and the number one health issue I see, by far, is ulcers.
Equine ulcers are essentially wounds, or lesions, on the wall of the digestive tract. Horses commonly develop ulcers on the lining of the stomach, typically known as gastric ulcers. Gastric ulcers can cause a variety of symptoms such as frequent colicking, weight loss, behavior issues, dull hair coat, cinchiness, unwillingness under saddle, cribbing, and weaving. Ulcers can be very painful, and horses can display a wide range of symptoms.
So, you notice changes in your horse: what’s the next step?
In order to diagnose ulcers, you’ll need an appointment with your veterinarian. The starting point for most veterinarians to diagnose ulcers is to use an endoscope. This allows them to visually verify ulcers in your horse’s stomach. Scoping requires withholding grain and hay for about 12 hours before the procedure and can be quite expensive, so some vets might suggest treating your horse experimentally first, based on symptoms consistent with ulcers.
Treatment for ulcers is simple. Omeprazole is the only drug known to effectively treat gastric ulcers in horses. You can spend hundreds of dollars on supplements, herbs, and minerals in an effort to holistically treat your horse’s ulcers, and with excellent intentions. But–get ready for some tough love: that expensive licorice and clay supplement you bought will not heal your horse’s stomach ulcers. It might temporarily soothe the pain, but it cannot effectively treat ulcers like omeprazole can.
Treatment for equine ulcers is manageable, but expensive. Prevention, however, is always the best solution to forgoing ulcer medication.
Stress is a major player in ulcer development, so making your horse’s living arrangement more natural is vital to his health. Performance horses who travel and compete are highly susceptible to ulcers. Nearly 60% of performance horses have ulcers, and 80-90% of Thoroughbred racehorses have been shown to have gastric ulcers, according to Dr. Jorge Nieto, Center for Equine Health, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis (UC Davis). If you choose to travel with your horse, try to keep his routine as consistent as possible. Give him breaks at shows and days off when you get home. Allow him turnout time to graze as much as possible. Your horse’s stomach produces about nine gallons of acid a day and requires feed and saliva to neutralize that acid. When you feed your horse just once or twice a day, his stomach doesn’t have the feed it needs to stabilize the pH balance of all that acid. If possible, feed your horse multiple smaller meals throughout the day or provide free-choice hay.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can also make horse’s more susceptible to gastric ulcers. Always administer medications with care and caution. Do not give your horse more than the allotted amount recommended by your veterinarian, and watch for clinical signs of ulcers if your horse is required to be on NSAIDs for a prolonged time.
Horses can develop ulcers in as little as five days. If your horse has displayed alarming changes, don’t rule out gastric ulcers without talking to your vet. I’m not a vet, nor do I claim to be one. All the knowledge I have, I’ve gained through first-hand experience and reading as much research as I can get my hands on. I’m passionate about gastric ulcers because I have seen many horses silently suffer.
This is Officer Allie of the Equine Ulcer Police, signing off.
This article is written in remembrance of handsome Chandler, owned by Larry and Thresa Green, and gorgeous Valkyrie, owned by Heather Chandler.