There are three types of equestrians; those that have dealt with ulcers, those that are dealing with ulcers, and those that will deal with ulcers. Digestive system inflammation, hemorrhaging, or leaking, whether foregut or hindgut, is ubiquitous. The currently available research on ulcer prevalence is nothing if it’s not severely depressing. So, if you are feeling any emotions about it, know that you are not alone. Far from it. But scooping supplements to solve your gastric ulcer problems is rarely the simple answer you are seeking. Smart horse owners know that forage and management are the first two strategies for ulcer prevention and cure.
The reality of what I’ll call “Modern Horse Management” is that it’s ulcer-friendly. The average U.S. horse used to be out in a herd group grazing most of the day and night, and if it was unlucky it went to town for a grocery run. Today, horses are being urbanized along with humans which means they are being crammed into tighter and tighter spaces, with fewer friends, and no social media page to stay connected. As we invest more into them, both emotionally and financially, it only seems logical that we feed them richer foods and more supplements to demonstrate our love and commitment. But sometimes this backfires.
I know that its tempting to solve your ulcer problems with scoops. The power of the supplement industry to convince us that their two scoops of this or that will solve those Grade 3 ulcers is pretty profound and hard to ignore. But I will tell you now, that in the last 17 years of equine nutrition consulting, I have come to the conclusion that scoops may augment, but they don’t cure. Pharmaceuticals cure and management cures. You might get lucky and feed a supplement around the same time that you do the other things, but it’s not likely to be your smoking gun. That's why I want to tell you about three seriously significant things that you CAN DO to prevent and eliminate ulcers BEFORE you purchase the new "wonder-supplement"!
At On Course Equine Nutrition, I’m a big supporter of natural, forage first decisions based on good, time tested management. Not some new age supplement with a big marketing budget. However, if you’ve read anything that I’ve ever written, you know that I’m also not a supplement anarchist. There are times and places for supplementation ALONGSIDE management, and I'm always willing to give something a try if there is a specific measurable goal and timeline. For more on that, read "How to Trial a New Supplement" by OCEN, LLC (June 2021). However, please try these forage based options FIRST!
STEP 1: Increase Number of Hours Chewing
The first and most profound step in ulcer mitigation is to simply increase the number of hours chewing, salivating, and swallowing long stem forage each day. Start by identifying any stretches of time longer than 4 hours that your horse is not eating long stem forage. Seriously, ulcers are CREATED in research studies by taking hay/pasture away from horses. The standard protocol for creating gastric ulcers in a lab are to restrict horses from forage intermittently over a week long period (Camacho-Luno et al., 2022). If these gastric ulcer creating protocols are that reliable in a lab, you can image that DAILY forage restriction over long stretches of time can reek havoc on the stomach lining. Horses are NOT episodic feeders like we are. We see, smell, and taste a meal and we start secreting acid in the stomach to help digest our foods. When the stomach empties, that acid production stops in humans. Horses do not have this on/off button. They evolved to eat 20+ hours per day so the acid pump doesn't turn off. It's a recipe for gastric ulcer creation in the case of forage deprivation.
When I say long stem forage, I mean pasture or hay that is at least 1" in stem length. Cubes qualify as long-stem forage, but pelleted hay products do not. The reason that long-stem forage is so important is because it creates a "mat" on top of the stomach digesta which prevents acid from eating away at the non-mucosal portion of the stomach. In addition, when horses chew this longer stem forage it creates a lot of saliva. This saliva is basic compared to the acid in the stomach, so it helps buffer and protect the lining. Chewing = ulcer prevention.
STEP 2: Identify Stress Points
Step two is to be a third party auditor of your horse's stress. What are the major stress points of your horse's lifestyle and daily schedule? Which ones can you mitigate or eliminate? If you are at a boarding facility, can you advocate for stress mitigation whenever/wherever possible and within reason? Here is a short and incomplete checklist.
When/how can you increase your horse's interaction with other horses? Horses are herd animals. Period. I know that you are worried about your horse "playing too hard" with another horse and I know you spent a lot of money to purchase him/her, but if you want to insulate your horse from friends, then you might be paying for Ulcerguard for the rest of their life.
Can your horse see other horses all day?
Is the feeding schedule regular and consistent?
Is trailering or standing tied at the cross ties a particularly stressful situation? If so, get help!
Are you checking your own baggage at the barn door?
Are you going to too many horse shows and clinics without proper rest in between?
Being unbiased and realistic is the most important part of this step. We love our horses soooooo much. Because of this, we can become blind to the ways in which our chosen management and unchosen life circumstances can add to our horse's stress. Sometimes getting a third party perspective to your horse's situation can be helpful. There's a lot of ways to keep and manage horses. Think outside of your "barn-box" for ideas.
STEP 3: Change Up Your Forage
If your horse is suffering from a particularly "sticky" case of ulcers that boomerang back every time that you take him/her off ulcer-guard and modern medicine is NOT helping, than I strongly suggest changing up 100% of your forage source. I have two reasons to suggest this. First off, all plants, from the vegetables and flowers in your garden to the trees in the woods and the grass in your hay fields, will have other organisms living on them. You can think of these organisms as the plants own "microbiome". Sometimes these organisms are passive bacteria, fungi and protozoa, but sometimes (once in a great while) these organisms aren't so helpful and create mycotoxins. The dairy industry knows all about this and takes measures to mitigate mycotoxins in their cow's diets which improves milk production. Like the dairy industry, it's within the realm of possibility that the microbiome of your horse's primary forage source doesn't jive with his/her equine microbiome, so try it for 60-90 days and see if the gastric ulcer score decreases.
The second reason to change up your horse's primary forage source is because of what humans put on the forage plants. Though rare, the things that we put ON forages could potentially activate, irritate, or otherwise confuse the digestive system as well. The things we put on forage come in the form of fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides and conditioners. If you are brave enough to Google "chemicals on horse hay", the internet will convince you that ALL hay is soaked in this stuff. However, having been imbedded in the forage industry for 5 years, I must tell you that this makes no sense, because these chemicals come at a great expense to farmers. It's also a federal crime to use these chemicals incorrectly off label. If you're wondering, just ask your forage grower, but politely please. They are doing what is best for the plants AND the animals. If you're not sure where your hay source comes from, or receive a new delivery from a presumed new farm every month, than simply changing the species of the plant could help. For example, if you are feeding orchardgrass or alfalfa hay than try timothy for 60-90 days or if you're feeding timothy, try teff or coastal hay. Talk to a nutritionist about what species of grass is most appropriate for your area, your horse, and your budget and goals.
Finally, OCEN has been working on an article specific to "chemicals in horse hay". OCEN is interviewing expert forage growers, extension specialists, and industry folks to give you a realistic insight into this topic. Stay tuned.
In summary, considering your horses' primary forage quantity and quality, daily schedule, and points of stress is the number one, two and three steps in ulcer prevention and cure. Forage and management changes are more often than not the most powerful and cost-effective tool in your equine nutrition toolbox for real, long term effects. Start there. The supplements will be there in your cart 60 days if the forage changes don't work.
Camacho‐Luna, P., Andrews, F.M., Keowen, M.L., Garza Jr, F., Liu, C.C., Lamp, B. and Olijve, J., 2022. The effect of porcine hydrolysed collagen on gastric ulcer scores, gastric juice pH, gastrin and amino acid concentrations in horses. Equine Veterinary Education, 34(5), pp.248-257.