Could Your Horse Have an Ulcer?

By: Dr. Lydia Gray

You don't have a fancy show horse, you have a trusty trail-riding steed that you take anywhere and everywhere. You don’t have to worry about him getting ulcers. Or do you?

It's been well-documented that over 90% of race horses and over 60% of performance horses (hunter/jumpers, dressage, endurance and western) have ulcers. However, a new study shows that even small changes in the routine of a recreational horse can cause ulcers in as little as five days.

Using 20 Paint horses from the same farm, researchers at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State University demonstrated that shipping, stabling and light exercise over a period of a few days was enough activity for 7 of 10 horses in the test group to develop ulcers. Two of 10 horses in the control group also developed ulcers, probably because the herd had to reestablish the pecking order during the study.

Here's how the research was performed: after having their stomachs "scoped" to make sure they didn’t already have ulcers, the horses were split into two groups of ten horses each. The control group stayed home while the test group was transported four hours to a stabling facility, placed in 12 X 12 stalls, and lunged or ridden for 30 minutes twice daily. Four days later they were brought back to the farm. The next day all 20 horses received a second endoscopic examination.

The take-home message is that horses do not have to undergo intense exercise or stress to develop ulcers. Just a few days of activities typical in recreational riding was found to cause ulcers in most of the horses in this test group. Fortunately, there are some steps horse owners can take to prevent ulcers and quickly heal them once they form.

First, know the signs of ulcers in horses. These include poor performance (often mistaken for musculoskeletal or back pain), behavioral issues (poor attitude, resistance, girthiness), colic and loss of weight or condition.

Next, manage your horse to prevent ulcers. In the ideal world, horses would be kept on pasture 24/7. Since this isn't possible for everyone, the next best thing is to turn your horse out as much as you can and feed him frequent small hay meals. When you take your horse somewhere, try to keep his schedule and environment as close to what it is at home as possible. Make sure you give your horse some "down time" if his training and competition schedule is especially grueling.

Finally, there is a wide variety of products on the market designed to support a healthy digestive tract and even provide symptomatic relief to horses with ulcers. However, Gastrogard is the first and only FDA-approved medication proven to heal ulcers, even while horses continue to train.

About Dr. Lydia Gray

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