[originally published in the January 2016 issue of Show Horse Today]
Dear Dr. Gray,
My stallion has ulcers every couple of years. What would be a good diet for him? At present he gets good quality alfalfa/grass hay with about one pound of 12% sweet feed daily at 6:30 am and 3:30 pm, and all the fresh water he can drink.
To help you with your ulcer-prone horse, here are the recognized risk factors for gastric ulcers in horses:
- Intermittent feed deprivation—not having food in the stomach is such a reliable risk factor for ulcers that researchers withhold food on purpose to induce the condition for studies!
- Intense exercise—there appears to be an association between the level of exercise intensity and the prevalence of ulcers
- Diet—concentrate (grain) feeding is believed to contribute to the formation and worsening of ulcers
- Stall confinement—could be due to intermittent feeding, lack of contact with other horses, stress, or other reasons
- Transportation—similar to stall confinement, could be a result of decreased food (and water), separation from other horses, or just the stress of being hauled to a new location
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)—this class of drugs disturbs the balance of protective vs aggressive factors in the stomach
- Stress—either mental or physical stress could increase the level of cortisol (stress hormone) in the body, which has been shown to shut down protective factors in the stomach
Now that you are familiar with the risk factors for gastric ulcers, what can you specifically do to eliminate or reduce them in your horse? Without knowing what you do with your horse (exercise, trailering, etc.) or how you keep him (stall, dry lot, pasture), I will stick to recommendations concerning diet.
Since he’s only getting one pound of sweet feed at his morning and afternoon meals, is it possible just to remove this grain altogether from his feeding regimen? This small amount is not enough to provide him with much nutrition in the way of protein, vitamins and minerals, but it may be enough to aggravate his stomach tissue. Try feeding a ration balancer or multi-vitamin/mineral supplement instead to complete and balance his diet.
I like that you’re feeding some alfalfa hay, as it may result in improvement in both the number and severity of gastric ulcers. Scientists aren’t sure if it’s the high protein, high calcium, or something else about alfalfa that is responsible for this result, but let’s use this forage to our advantage! Probably the best way to reap the benefits of alfalfa is to provide a flake with his meals morning and afternoon, then keep grass hay in front of him all the time so he always has something in his stomach. There are a couple of ways to keep him slowly nibbling around the clock, one is a small hole hay net. Maybe these were introduced to the market for the overweight, easy keepers, but I’ve found them to be super helpful for horses prone to ulcers as a safe method to provide free-choice grass hay without the waste or extra calories.
Finally, ask your veterinarian if a supplement to support stomach health might be a good choice for your horse. From antacids designed to temporarily neutralize stomach acid to amino acids like glutamine to other natural agents like pectin/lecithin, seabuckthorn and aloe, there are a variety of natural ingredients to select from with solid science behind them. Give a product for a month and see if it makes a difference; if not, choose a different one. Best of luck finding a diet, management and supplement program that helps your stallion!