I’ve never had my OTTB scoped for ulcers, but given his history and current living situation, I’m fairly confident his stomach bothers him. My friend recommended adding baking soda to his program to help. I’m confused because I’ve also heard that baking soda is used for loose stool and in some cases, it’s fed to help with lactic acid build up in muscles. Is baking soda something I should consider adding given his situation or is there a better solution? – Kristen L. from Barrington, IL

Dear KL,
You’re absolutely right, there is a lot of (mis)information out there about our friend and household staple baking soda, so let’s put some of the myths to rest so we can provide safe and effective support to our horses where they need it most.

Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, affectionately known in some circles just as “bicarb.” It’s commonly used around the house to bake cookies, freshen laundry, whiten teeth, and perform a host of other tasks. In the stable, it has also been used for years for some honest purposes and some not-so-honest purposes. For example, some people feed it to “sweeten” the stomach at mealtime, using bicarb’s ability to neutralize acid in an attempt to help them avoid gastric distress. It does probably raise stomach pH and make the horse temporarily more comfortable, but since the effect is short-lived, there is still the need for longer-acting medications like omeprazole to treat and prevent ulcers.

Unfortunately, some trainers have given large doses of bicarb to racehorses just prior to a race in an effort to enhance performance by “pre-loading” the animal with an alkalinizing agent to buffer the lactic acid that will be produced during racing. It does lower blood pH, but it also puts the horse in harm’s way and is now prohibited on race day at all U.S. racing jurisdictions. Blood tests are performed within one hour of the finish of a race to make sure the horse’s total carbon dioxide or tCO2 levels are not too high, indicating the practice of “milkshaking.”

Researchers have experimented with a wide variety of hays, grains, and supplements, trying to cause a shift in the horse’s tCO2 levels but so far they have been unsuccessful. What this means is that it is difficult if not impossible to feed a horse enough bicarb to affect lactic acid levels in muscles or for that matter, the pH in the hindgut. Fortunately, for those horses at-risk for hindgut acidosis because of a high-grain diet or sugar-rich pastures, one company has developed a protected sodium bicarbonate. This supplement is able to make it past the acidic environment of the stomach and small intestine to the large intestine, where it delivers bicarb to the hindgut and neutralizes excess acid without creating a dangerous rise in tCO2 levels.

My advice is to work with your veterinarian to select targeted supplements and/or medications with sound science behind them to support your horse’s specific issues. In your case, supplements, over-the-counter agents and prescription medications might all be needed to make sure your horse enjoys a healthy stomach.