Ulcers and Digestive problems

Ulcers and digestive problems the facts

In recent years horses having ulcers seems to become more widely recognised and discussed, competition horses have always been susceptible to ulcers this is not a new thing, what has changed is our ability to easily diagnose ulcers in horses and with the use of social media horse owners are more able to discuss their individual experiences on a wider platform helping with the education of other owners. As more vets have access to the equipment to scope horses quickly and relatively cheaply more owners are being encouraged to look into the changes in behaviour that in the past have just been labelled ‘quirky’ or ‘temperamental’. It is thought that over 90% of Racehorses and 60% of competition horses and ponies suffer from some level of digestive irritation leading to loss of performance and condition.

What causes ulcers?

Horses are naturally a trickle grazer, their digestive system is designed to eat almost constantly (roughly 20 hrs a day) on short stem forage, when horses became domesticated we change their nomadic lifestyle for paddock grazing and stabling, where as in the wild horses would forage and grass would have been a mixture of meadow grasses, rough land and herbs, now land is carefully managed often very lush high in water and sugars, stabled horses have their short stem grazing substituted by long stem hay or haylege, which is less able to act as an acid barrier in the stomach.

The stress of stabling, travelling and competing are also factors in todays horses being more susceptible to ulcers in their daily life. We treat our competition horses like performance athletes without maintaining care for the most important system.

Without a strong and healthy digestive system horses are unable to absorb nutrients efficiently, the Ph balance may become compromised and the whole system will become stressed and less efficient, there can become an imbalance in the bacteria within the hind gut and this can affect the ability of the enzymes to digest food properly. This will reflect in many ways, we all notice when horses loose condition, loose their sparkle and become lethargic but these can often be the very late signs of problems within the digestive system, horses are generally very stoic in their attitude and can suffer lots of discomfort before we really notice a problem.

What are the obvious signs of digestive problems.

  • Weight loss, poor condition of skin and coat, poor muscle tone and development, tight skin.
  • Changes in dropping type, firmness amount.
  • Changes in digestion associated with travel, exercise and competition.

More subtle and early stage changes may include

  • Fidgety when changing rugs, grooming and tacking up
  • Resistance to leg at the beginning of exercise sessions
  • Kicking out when leg is put on, when changing gait or jumping
  • Ears back resistance to going forward
  • Happier in canter than trot
  • Tail swishing
  • Tense through back

As you can see signs can be very easily misunderstood as back problems, teeth, freshness, ‘feeling too fit’ as they are quite subtle and can easily accumulate into quite a major problem before we even notice.

Feeding horses with digestive problems.

In an ideal world horses would lead as natural life style as possible with lots of turnout with limited time in stables, but not every horse owner can or in fact wants to manage horses from grass and this is not necessarily the best way to manage diet or fitness levels of performance horses who require more careful management.

When horses are stabled it is important to minimise stress and maintain a healthy environment. Horses are creatures of habit and a carefully maintained daily routine is an important part of their well being to keep stress levels to a minimum, it is known that stress causes ulcers so by horses being calm and relaxed in their surroundings helps to reduce this, horses are sociable animals so being able to see each other and interact also helps to maintain calmness within the yard. Many yards will also keep a radio on during the day as background noise, to help maintain a calmer feeling.

Horses digestive system works more efficiently if fed little and often rather than one or two feeds at either end of the day and naturally horses would eat almost continually, this is mimicked with adlib forage, it is therefore better for the horses digestion to feed a larger amount of meadow forage than a small amount of high calorie rich forage, haylege can be very high in sugar which can have a detrimental effect on horses digestion

As a recommendation feeding a handful of low sugar chaff immediately prior to exercise will sit on the top of the stomach acid reducing the splash onto the more sensitive lining, hay or haylege do not have the same affect due to the long stem. Feeding a diet high in fibre and reducing the sugar and starch content has added benefits along with a good digestive supplement of which there are many on the market.

There are many problems that can occur within the horse’s complex digestive track, recently stomach ulcers have become a popular talking point many supplements focus on helping these, but in actual fact more horses suffer from hind gut irritation and inflammation than was already thought. At present it is more difficult to diagnose problems within the hind gut than stomach hence the reasons more focus has been placed on stomach ulcers.

The hind gut contains a complex range of bacteria which are vital for the absorption of nutrients, Excess sugar and starch accelerate the fermentation process in the hindgut, damaging the balance of micro flora and creating an overgrowth of bacteria such as Lactobacilli and Streptococci which causes lactic acid levels to rise, and a rapid drop in hindgut pH occurs, this all has a detrimental effect on the absorption of nutrients and the delicate bacteria balance within the hind gut.