Managing Horses with Gastric Ulcers

Last week a horse owner contacted me about changing her horses diet.   She stated that they are ¾ of the way through show season and he is just “off his game”.  It seems that the horse was showing a lack of appetite and not finishing his grain. In addition, his disposition seemed to have changed, being rather grumpy and his performance level was suffering.  A few times he had shown signs of mild colic over the past two months.

I suggested the owner contact her veterinarian, as it sounded like the horse may have an ulcer.  I explained that the percentage of horses with ulcers continues to increase, and that higher intensity levels of training are correlated with an increase in ulcer incidence.  The ulcers often occur in the upper third of the stomach, which does not have a mucus layer and does not secrete bicarbonate that helps to buffer stomach acid.  It is also interesting to note that ulcers have not been founded on pastured horses.  This is likely due to the fact that as a horse grazes, it produces large amounts of saliva, which contain the bicarbonate and amylase needed to provide a buffer for the stomach lining. 

The owner was not pleased with my answer, but agreed to call the vet.  Within the week she contacted me and said the horse had been diagnosed with a gastric ulcer.  He was now on medication, but we needed to make dietary changes as well.  I suggested the following “back to basic” steps to help manage her horses condition:

  1. Allow the horse to be turned out or hand grazed.
  2. If access to pasture is not possible, good quality hay is a must.  Recent studies indicate that legume hay is an excellent choice, possibly due to the high calcium content which may help to serve as a buffer.
  3. Breaking the daily rations into smaller more frequent meals also help keep saliva production constant and protect the stomach lining – more like “grazers” instead of “meal eaters”.
  4. High starch diets also tend to aggravate ulcers due to increased acid production. A high fat high fiber feed is ideal.

In essence, to help keep them from suffering the ill effects of ulcers,  we need to let our horses just be horses.

This entry was posted in Digestive System, Diseases and Disorders, Feeding Management, How To.
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17 Responses to Managing Horses with Gastric Ulcers

  1. Mary Sorrells says:

    This is all absolutely correct. I have an older horse that has had ulcers several different times until I learned how to manage the problem. He is now on the high fat Triumph w/ added Empower. I also add alfalfa pellets to my feed and give him a flake of alfalfa at night. My vet in Bryan TX, Dr. Cliff Honnas also advised me to put him on Ranitidine (this is a generic brand antacid that you can buy at Sam’s) 13 tablets twice a day. I grind them up and add to his feed, especially if we are going to be gone for several days rodeoing.

  2. TONY SACERDOTE says:

    CAN YOU TELL ME WHAT THE PERCENTAGE OF STARCH & SUGAR LEVEL IS IN THE SAFE CHOICE

  3. Ashley says:

    My barrel horse was recently diagnosed with Ulcers. I had been feeding Omolene 500, and noticed that even with Ulcer medication, the Omolene did not settle well with her. I promptly switched her to Nutrena Perform. I’ve really liked the results, as she’s worked daily, and competes nearly every weekend. But, I was interested to know if this was the best feed that Nutrena offers for a situation such as this.

    Thanks! I know this thread is old, but I found it after searching the Nutrena page, and believe you’ll be able to help me!

    • Gina T. says:

      Hello Ashley,
      Thanks for checking in, and we’re glad to hear you are seeing results with the SafeChoice Perform! Ulcers can actually as affected by feeding management as they are by the actual feed. One of the main things to do with a horse with ulcers is to provide as much hay/pasture/forage as possible, and also as much turnout time as possible. When feeding grain, feed it in smaller amounts, and also after hay has been fed, to help buffer the stomach.
      As for the product, yes – SafeChoice Perform is a good choice for your horse. The high fat level helps to allow you to feed less feed than a lower-calorie feed, which means less grain going in to her.
      Hope that helps! ~ Gina T.

  4. Melissa Crooks says:

    My mare had ulcers and I put her on Safe choice special care that has NO corn, a fat supplement, and Ulc R Aid by animeds and she has completely turned around. She even almost completely stopped cribbing. She has put all her weight back on and her coat is slick and shiney finally. Until we figured out it was ulcers, I could not get any weight on her no matter how much I fed her. Although she never quit eating her feed, she would just crib instead of eating any hay when not on grass. Her attitude is so much better as well.

    • Gayle R. says:

      Hi Melissa!
      Thank you so much for sharing your success story! It is always nice when our customers let us know how our products are working with their horses!!
      Gayle R.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    I am currently feeding my mare 3lbs/day of Empower Boost and 1lb/day of an alfalfa pellet, (plus her U-Gard and Recovery EQ supplements) along with high quality timothy hay and daily access to grass pasture. She is only a 4 on the body condition scale which I am unhappy with. She is in moderate-high work 5-6 days a week and is turned out 12-14 hours a day. I cannot feed her anything with grain as she is very ulcer prone (treated her with Gastrogard over the winter). What can I feed her to up her caloric intake without feeding her something that will upset her ulcers? All I can think of is beet pulp?? Thank you!!

    • Gayle R. says:

      Hello Elizabeth, The key for your mare will be to provide adequate calories while avoiding upset. You are on the right track with the high fat high fiber diet. You are also doing a great job with the turnout. Based on your work schedule, sounds like we just need to balance the caloric intake.

      To gain 1 body condition score over about 60 days you will need to increase her caloric intake by at least 5 Mcal (5000) calories per day. I would suggest adding 5 pounds of alfalfa hay or cubes to the diet. On average alfalfa contain 1MCal per pound. It also will help create bicarb and amylase.

      If you weigh out 5 pounds of alfalfa cubes and then soak them, this will also help with hydration issues. I would also suggest adding a vitamin mineral balancer to the diet, Empower Balance will help provide the proper balance of copper, zinc, selenium, A,D, E and added pre and pro biotics that your horse in heavy training will need. Not to mention balance the limiting amino acids needed for muscle mass. You will need to read the tag to determine proper serving size based on your horses weight – about a pound per day on average.

      Hope this helps. Thanks for contacting Nutrena!
      Kind Regards,
      Gayle M. Reveron, PAS, Equine Specialist

  6. Tricia says:

    I would like to know what exactly is an ulcer diet. Nutritionally should your horse get the lowest starch, carbohydrates and sugars grain? Lots of turnout and free choice hay? What kind of hay? My horse needs more calories but less grain. I read so many things….I just get more confused. I would like to know what exactly to put him on

    • Gayle R. says:

      Good question Tricia! You are on the right track. It is helpful if horses diagnosed with ulcers can be out on pasture or allowed to consume forage throughout the day. The continuous mastication encourages production of saliva, which contains natural buffers, helping to protect the tissues in the stomach from further damage.

      Hay quality is important, whether feeding legume, grass or mixed hay. You mentioned your horse needs calories, so I would suggest an alfalfa or alfalfa mix, as it is higher in calories per pound. The high calcium content is also helpful as a dietary buffer and tends to be very palatable, encouraging continuous intake.

      Increasing the feed frequency ( 4-6 small meals per day) is also helpful in keeping saliva production constant and preventing a decrease in gastric pH, therefore protecting the mucosal lining. Also, avoid sudden changes in diet or routine.

      As you mentioned you will need to watch the starch and sugar (NSC) content in the feed you chose. Feeds high in NSC promote increased acid and volatile fatty acid production. Look for feeds with controlled starch and sugar technology, as well as highly digestible sources of fiber.

      So again, a high fat, high fiber, low NSC diet that is high in calorie should help you monitor your horses ulcer problem while maintaining body weight.

      Thank you for contacting Nutrena!
      Kind Regards,
      Gayle M. Reveron, PAS, Equine Specialist

  7. Amy Woods says:

    Gayle, thank you for the feeding guidelines for horses with ulcers. There are also many medications and treatments available on shelves for the treatment of ulcers. Any recommendations regarding these products?
    Amy

  8. Hadley Burgess says:

    Hi,
    I have a 24-year old horse who was recently hospitalized with colic caused by really bad ulcers. At the hospital they did blood work and his glucose levels were on the higher end of normal. He has been getting Life Design Senior but since it’s being discontinued, I figured it’s about time to switch to something else. Something that won’t aggravate his ulcers or elevate his blood sugar. What are your recommendations?

    • Gayle R. says:

      Hi Hadley!

      Good question. The SafeChoice Special Care is lower in NSC (starch and sugar) than SafeChoice Senior (which is replacing the Life Design Senior). We state our starch and sugar levels on the tag, and on our website, for all our premium horse feeds. I was curious if you have had your hay tested for NSC content? If your hay does test high for starch and sugar I recommend soaking it for at least 30 minutes prior to feeding to help reduce the NSC values as well.

      You may also want to get your horses blood glucose levels retested once he is home and recovered, as they may have been spiked due to stress.

      Gayle Reveron, PAS

  9. Susan says:

    Help!! Have a 13 year old horse that is stalled for 3 months because of stress fracture and infection. After two weeks in stall he had colic episode. We took him off grain and he is currently eating alfalfa pellets three times a day soaked and unlimited hay. With all the trauma he is already underweight so how do we keep him healthy and put weight on him through this ordeal. Still have over 2 months to go.

    • Gina T. says:

      Hello Susan,

      In this instance, a controlled starch, high fat feed such as SafeChoice Original is ideal – but the most important piece in this situation is the feeding management. By this, we mean the schedule – go with several smaller meals per day, as your schedule allows – and also feeding along with plenty of free-choice water, and keeping that unlimited hay supply going.

      As soon as hand-walking is allowed, that will can help as well – reducing stress in any way possible.

      Hope that helps – beyond this, stick with the advice of your veterinarian! Thank you ~ Gina T.

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