Ulcers are tricky. Some horses do not show any overt signs of having them, while others show signs, but do not have ulcers. The key is to watch for changes. Look for signs such as not finishing his meal, intermittent colic episodes, weight loss, poor attitude or reluctance to work, incurable diarrhea, or an unthrifty appearance. He may also yawn excessively, grind his teeth, or stretch out to urinate -- all signs of pain.
An ulcer is an erosion of the tissue that lines the gastrointestinal tract. Ulcers more commonly form in the stomach (gastric ulcers) but can develop anywhere along the digestive tract (colonic ulcers).
Your horse’s stomach
Our stomachs produce acid only when we eat. But the horse’s stomach produces acid all the time. Chewing produces saliva, which neutralizes acid. Left without anything to chew on, horses will develop ulcers. Horses are designed to eat small amounts, grazing virtually all day.
Speed events and hard work can also cause ulcers, typically in the upper region that is unprotected by a mucus layer, because stomach acid sloshes around in an empty stomach when your horse is moving quickly or training rigorously.
Stress and starch: both part of the picture
You know what stresses your horse. An unfamiliar environment, loss of a buddy, stalling, training, travel, and performance can result in more acid production. Did you know that a horse who is moved into a stall after being used to pasture turnout may develop an ulcer in less than a week?
Oats and other cereal grains stimulate stomach cells to produce more acid. They also leave the stomach quickly, making it even more vulnerable to acid erosion.
Prevention and treatment
Nutritional intervention can be used to avoid ulcers and cure existing ones. Educate yourself on ulcers and other issues of equine nutrition by subscribing to Dr. Juliet M. Getty’s free Forage for Thought e-newsletter. Sign up at www.gettyequinenutrition.com , a site rich in Dr. Getty’s research-based knowledge and 20-year experience in equine nutrition; it includes a free on-line forum, educational articles, and a convenient web-based store. Dr. Getty’s comprehensive resource book, Feed Your Horse Like a Horse, is also available for purchase through the site.