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I learned a BIG lesson today about equine gastric ulcers.

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

I learned something BIG today, and it has something to do with diagnosis of equine gastric ulcers and horsemanship. The story starts about 2 years ago when I moved my two mares to a new boarding facility where they no longer had large grassy pasture turnout and had to be constantly separated from herd mates. And then another move six months later where, thought they lived mostly out on grassy pastures again, schedules and environment changed, new horses came and went, and pecking orders fluctuated. It was also in these two years, that I committed myself to moving up a level in eventing so the frequency and intensity of training increased for my chestnut mare, Stella. All of this is to say that her stress level changed, and with it a new set of behaviors developed that pointed me to gastric ulcers; girthiness, grinding her teeth, sensitivity to grooming. I inquired with several veterinarians about scoping as well as a 30 day regime of Cox-2 inhibitors, but I decided to “treat” with management strategies and “horsey tums” rather than spend a couple hundred dollars for a conformational diagnosis or many hundreds of dollars for UlcerGuard. I was definitely a “head in the sand” evasion of the costs or, better yet, an “ignorance is bliss” mentality.

This mentality has quietly been eroding over the last several months as I’ve had more and more opportunities to deep-dive with private consult clients. Three different horses come to mind that have reshaped how I approach gastric ulcer diagnosis.

#1 Stella: Remove the guess work with a proper diagnosis. Replacing the “guessing” with “knowing” has been a primary motivator for me in my business. I LOVE to teach horse owners how to measure, weigh, and sample their feeds, supplements and forages and see their confidence grow with this new found knowledge. No where is this more evident than in a forage test for calories, protein, carbs and micro nutrients (the light bulbs really go on then). I decided that I needed to practice what I preached about horse nutrition and get a confirmed diagnosis on Stella’s stomach status! [Read to the end to learn Stella’s stomach status after scoping.]

#2 Goodlight: Treat the BIG problems before treating the small problems. Goodlight’s owner called me through a veterinary recommendation, because a genetic test had confirmed the PSSM Type 1 marker. What a relief, I thought during her first call, that we knew for sure what myopathy was causing the tying up episodes, and we could change the nutrition appropriately without delay! However, as we continued to discuss his progress and needs, I was realizing that this horse perhaps had an equally big problem; his intense reining training and competition was causing ulcer symptoms. The owners had been treating him with omeprazole sporadically at home (which had worked) and during show travel, but had not had a diagnosis. So, when Goodlight's owner started quizzing me about adding a digestive aid, I was really struggling to get on board. What I finally voiced was the fact that if we didn't get the ulcers under control, the chance of any number of digestive aids making any meaningful change was slim. I encouraged the owner to schedule a scoping so that we could understand the severity of the disease and make a cohesive, long-term plan around treatment and further prevention. Simply delaying 6-8 months of a cheap digestive aid supplement would offset the costs of the scoping.

#3 Petra: The unsolvable problem may very well be solvable. Petra’s owner came to be for a similar problem- her lovely, happy mare had turned sour and unwell. She was convinced that a myopathy was to blame and a genetic test galvanized her suspicions. However, she was also smart enough to request a scoping which resulted in an educational visual of severe stomach ulceration. Had this owner not requested this diagnostic test, she would have been treating a completely different disease and spending a fortune doing so!

My “ignorance is bliss” mentality had become so strong that when I discussed with my husband that I was considering getting Stella scoped, I really struggled explaining to him why I was suddenly abandoning my original theory. I had been stuck thinking that I didn’t need a diagnosis, because I already “knew”. Well, today I had Stella scoped for ulcers by a very competent veterinarian, and low and behold, she did NOT have more than some slight thickening around the squamous layer- not even a 1 on the 1-5 scale. Now that I KNOW, I’m so glad that I made this decision despite the cost, because I was certain that I was going to have to put her on omeprazole at $35 per day during competition season. I can now save that money for another show entry. Lesson learned- stop guessing and start gloating!

Boy have I said that a few times in my webinar series. The irony is that it took a couple years to take my own advice! If you'd like to learn more ways to take the "guesswork" out of feeding horses, consider On Course Equine Nutrition's webinar series. Just three to four weeks of your life will change the way you feed horses for the rest of your life. I guarantee it.

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