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.
Tagged as , , .

23 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.

  10. Stacy Pipkin says:

    Hi, Susan-

    I surely hope you can help me. I have an eight-year-old TWH/Standardbred rescue mare that is ulcerative and THE pickiest eater on the planet! She has full access to 20+ acres, constant fresh water, plus additional hay morning and night until the grass starts really growing again. The ONLY grain she is even mildly interested in eating lately is straight oats.

    She was coming along beautifully in her recovery, until I began taking in more rescues. She’s attached herself to me, and it seems every time another rescue comes in, her attitude–and her condition–suffer. I have her on Omeprazole, as recommended by our vet.

    What feed would you recommend that would help her ulcers, and would be palatable enough that even she will eat it?

    Thanks so much,
    Stacy

    • Roy J. says:

      Thank you for your question about your 8 year old TWH/Standardbred rescue mare. It sounds like she has some anxiety issues when other horses are introduced, not uncommon in the situation you describe.

      If she is prone to ulcers, which can produce very picky eating behavior, I would consider the following:
      1. Use a fairly fine textured good quality alfalfa or alfalfa grass hay as the alfalfa is generally quite palatable and the calcium and magnesium levels in the hay provide a buffering effect for stomach acid.
      2. Try to make sure she has controlled access to the hay so that she has to eat over a longer period of time. This encourages saliva production, which also helps buffer the stomach. Steady grazing also helps, depending on the quality of the pasture. Appropriate hay net or multiple feedings per day may be useful.
      3. We have had success using our Senior horse feeds (SafeChoice Senior) for rescue horses. Very palatable and very safe in terms of controlled starch, added oil and digestible fiber. Actually safer than oats and more palatable for many horses.
      4. She will probably require a little extra attention when new horses are introduced to help overcome insecurity. Definite emotional and territorial challenge.

      Make sure she has loose salt available free choice and access to fresh clean water at all times.

      Best wishes,
      Roy

  11. Eileen Hoag says:

    Worst possible combo. Retired from showing 20 year old 37″ mini mare with ulcers. I swear she can get fat on air! I board, so I put her hay into large paint buckets so the feeders do not throw in a !flake! of alfalfa. One bucket per feeding. She is grumpy and under motivated when I drive her every other week. I drive my shetland on the alternating weekends. I try to tie them out on the grass for about 30 minutes every weekend because there is no other grazing available here in sunny but dry southern california. I am not happy with her vigor on the mini/pony feed I supplement her with when I come to the stable every night after work. She has about 3 or 4 colics due to her ulcers every year. Do you have a safe feed for this situation?

    • Roy J. says:

      Hello Eileen, This is a definite challenge. There are a couple of issues to consider. Providing your mini mare with some almost continuous “grazing” would be beneficial to help reduce impact of ulcers and might be a benefit in reducing colic. You also want to provide her with adequate amino acids, vitamins and trace minerals. I would suggest seeing if you can get a hay net with very small holes in the netting and put her limited amount of hay in this net when fed so that she has to “graze” for a long time to eat her hay. This will encourage her to chew for longer periods of time and produce more saliva, which has a buffering effect on the stomach. I would also try to get a low energy grass hay so that the calorie intake is controlled.

      To go along with this, I would use a balancer type product that is also controlled starch and sugar. Our Nutrena product would be Empower Balance. You could also use SafeChoice Special Care, fed according to weight instructions. She will also need loose salt free choice and access to fresh clean water at all times.

      Thank you ~ Roy J.

  12. Casey says:

    I recently switched to Safe Choice feeds. I have a TWH gelding who was hospitalized a year ago with extreme colic from ulcers. Didn’t know he had ulcers, as a supplement I fed masked the…, until I decided to change to a different one. After he came home from the vets, I took him off Ultium and put him on strictly alfalfa pellets for a ‘feed’. Then in November my barrel mare was acting poorly and losing weight. She’s been a mystery since I bought her, whittling down the issues. I started her on the same treatment my vet had prescribed for the TWH. I also started her on 2 ounces of Aloe Vera juice at each feeding (and still use it for both as my only ulcer maintenance ‘drug’). Then I moved her from alfalfa pellets/Ultium to alfalfa pellets/oats. I saw amazing results & she was eating again, but just wasn’t filling out. Also, these horses are only stalled to be fed… so technically pasture horses and the TWH is really a pasture pet because my husband hardly ever rides.

    I started doing more research on ulcers and wanted something with pre/probiotics. I came up with Safe Choice. I picked up the Performance formula and also the Empower. She gets about 5# of feed at a time (twice daily), but 2# is alfalfa pellets & 2# is Empower. She still gets the aloe, too. She looks amazing and has turned into a feed vacuum when before I was lucky if she’d finish her feed within a couple if hours or at all. She’s Appendix QH and definitely favors the TB half so any bit of weight loss is instantly noticeable! The TWH gelding is also doing awesome, but he only gets about a pound of alfalfa pellets & half a pound of Safe Choice.

    Another life saver are slow feed nets. I have netted coastal round bales in the pasture at all times (no grass). I have netted bale flakes in the trailer (no horse is hauled without hay or goes anywhere without hay available any longer), and we also have whole square bale nets for one horse without access to the round bale.

    Very pleased with how my 2 ulcer kids have progressed and very thankful for the Safe Choice formulas + Empower! Just wanted to share my experiences.

  13. Bob Harbin says:

    I hav e been through the ulcer nightmare. My horse is ulcer free and gets Safe Choice Special care mixed with SafeChoice Sr. She gets pasture and feels good. Also give alfalfa cubes soaked.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

PLEASE NOTE: By clicking "POST COMMENT" above, you agree that you've read our online privacy policy.