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What causes ulcers and how can we help our horses

We have all heard or witnessed horses being girthy when being tacked up, struggling to maintain condition or even having regular colics if only to name a few indications. These could all be signs of a horse who has ulcers or is starting to develop them.

Ulcers are more common than a lot of horse owners realise and feeding your horse in a way to reduce the risk is of utmost importance, this counts for when your horse is a top-performing racehorse, showjumper or even a riding school pony teaching little kiddies.

Ulcers

Ulcers are lesions in the digestive tract lining which are caused by gastric acid irritating and damaging the stomach lining. Due to horses being designed to constantly be consuming feed, their bodies are also producing gastric acid continuously. Ulcers can be caused or brought on by numerous factors such as stress, high starch/low fibre diets, extended periods without food if only to name a few.

Stress

Stress can be caused by situations such as being confined for long periods of time to experiencing stressful environments like those at competitions. A stressed horse will often have a lowered roughage consumption which means that there will be excess gastric juices in the stomach.

High starch diets

High starch diets translate to diets with a high grain inclusion. High starch diets are often linked to lowered fibre intake with one reason being that hard feed occupies digestive space that could otherwise be occupied by roughage. High starch diets are often fed in bulk and cannot all be digested in the stomach which is where undigested starch enters the large intestine where fermentation occurs. This fermentation of starch causes a drop in the pH which causes unfavourable conditions for cellulolytic bacteria (fibre digesting bacteria).

This results in a decrease in the activity and concentration of the cellulolytic bacteria and thus the efficiency of fibre digestion within the hindgut decreases. Long stem fibers that are obtained from roughage require more chewing by the horses which produce an increased amount of saliva. Horse saliva contains sodium bicarbonate which acts as a buffer in the stomach, therefore the higher the fibre intake, the lower the chance for your horse to get ulcers.

Starch in itself is not bad, however, we need to ensure that we do not overload a horse’s system with it. If we need to feed more starch then a roughage like lucerne, which is high in calcium and protein, should be given with it to combat the negative effect of high starch intake.

No gut fill

Long periods without food will lead to a horse’s gut being empty. Horses have a very small stomach in relation to their size and can thus only eat small amounts at a time. An empty stomach leads to the gastric juices being in contact with the lining of the stomach which can lead to lesions and ulcers. Therefore, the rule of thumb is “small meals, often” and to never leave a horse without roughage for longer than 4 hours at a time whether that is in the form of grazing, teff, oat hay, barley, lucerne etc.

Horses prone to ulcers can be fed a high fibre, a low starch meal such as Canega Copra Cool. Copra Cool does not contain any grains and is low in starch which means it will not lower the pH of the digestive system which is a big factor in gastric ulcers in horses. A high starch intake and thus the fermentation of starch not only makes the digestive tract more acidic but can also reduce the activity of cellulolytic bacteria (fibre digesting bacteria).

Canega CopraCool is high in fibre (20.5%) which means your horse will have a fuller stomach for longer, this prevents the splashing of hydrochloric acid against the stomach lining and in turn reduces the risk for ulcers developing.

Tips on reducing the incidence of ulcers:

  • Feed a low NSC/high fibre diet.
  • Provide the horse with roughage prior to exercise to ensure gut fill. The contents in the gut will prevent gastric acid from splashing within the stomach which could cause lesions/ulcers.
  • Feed a roughage such as lucerne together with the concentrate meals. Lucerne has a buffering effect and thus reduces the acidity within the gut.
  • Provide a horse with ad-lib roughage so that their stomach remains full.
  • Ensure the horse always has fresh water available.
  • Include oils in the diet in order to include calories which might be lacking from a low starch diet.

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