My Equine Gastric Ulcer Story


As most of my regular readers know, my current horse is insulin resistant. A little over a decade ago she foundered. Thanks, in part, to a stringent management program post-founder our story had a happy ending but that doesn’t mean she leads a challenge free life.

One of the management strategies that we employ is that she lives on a dry lot for much of the year which eliminates her exposure to the fructan rich grass that brought about her initial experience with laminitis and founder to begin with.  As an insulin resistant horse, she is an extremely easy keeper who is also most likely leptin resistant. This means that she is lacking in a hormone that makes her feel full. Quite simply, she will not stop eating free choice feedings. This has deep implications for my management practices in that I cannot simply drop the occasional round bale of hay into her dry lot and think that all is well.

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In the past, when considering that she cannot live the lifestyle of continuous free choice grazing that horses were designed for, I have mistakenly rethought this strategy and offered her a round bale of hay as a sort of consolation. Trust me when I say that I know that when offered, her entire focus in life has become eating that round bale down to the last wisp.  So while portion control and of course exercise have been big boons to maintaining her at an acceptable weight, they have also brought about the unpleasant downside of increasing her susceptibility to ulcers. With this mind, this week’s post is about signs that your horse may have ulcers and possible ways to prevent them.

Ulcers can occur for many reasons. Living on a dry lot does not necessarily mean that your horse will contract ulcers and even if your horse doesn’t live on a dry lot it doesn’t mean that he or she is home free. It is merely one indicator of many that should be considered. If your own horse lives on a dry lot as mine does or if you have other reasons to be concerned that your horse may have developed or could develop ulcers consider these symptoms that my own mare has exhibited:

Exhibiting resistance while performing under saddle work.  One of the common misconceptions that I have fallen prey to is that being “cinchy,” as my own mare is, is not a not a symptom of ulcers. However resistance while performing under saddle work, particularly when this is unusual for your horse, bears further investigation. While this symptom may or may not be related to ulcers it is certainly a piece of the diagnostic puzzle.

Exhibiting irritability. Of course every horse can have the occasional bad day but if your normally placid horse becomes irritable over an extended period of time, for example, this may be another sign that your horse may have developed ulcers. Of course both resistance and irritability may also be signs that your horse needs chiropractic care or may be completely unrelated to the two and instead be connected to another condition.

Exhibiting a lack of energy. If, for instance, your normally very forward horse begins to require being pushed while under saddle ulcers might be considered as part of the cause. Again, however, your horse’s behavior should be monitored over time as every horse can have a “bad” day.

Exhibiting behavior that shows discomfort when blanketing or brushing around the flank area.  Pinning of the ears, stomping, excessive tail swishing, and turning of the head toward the uncomfortable areas are just a few examples of discomfort that your horse might exhibit while blanketing or brushing him or her. Once again, lack of energy is a non-specific symptom as is displaying uncomfortable behavior that can also be attributed to other conditions such as colic. Colic can be a much more serious and possibly even an emergency situation that demands an immediate call to your veterinarian. The point being, you should know your horse such that you know when to make that call.

Unfortunately, the truth is that all of these symptoms are vague and can also be indicative of other injury or illness. If you are concerned that your horse may have ulcers or some other type of injury or illness you will want to discuss these symptoms with your veterinarian along with following his or her recommended plan for a physical examination and treatment some of which could be unique to your situation. Discussions along with a physical examination during my veterinarian’s annual visit to my farm indicated that while we weren’t yet ready to employ medical interventions we were ready to begin methodically exploring our options making note of what has worked and what hasn’t as we make our way towards a definitive diagnosis, treatment plan, and ultimately a more comfortable, healthy, and happy horse. Knowing that my mare is at risk below are just some of the prevention strategies that I was given or have used:

Employing the use of slow feeders. Although my mare’s portions are limited, slow feeders are one way that I can decrease the speed at which she eats her hay therefore extending the amount of time that she has it available to her. With a little on-line research you’ll find that there are many commercial and homemade options available to meet your specific needs.

Reducing or eliminating grains. Think about it, do you really exercise your horse enough that he or she specifically requires a grain meal? On average I currently actively ride for about thirty minutes a day, six days a week. Even at this frequency my own mare does not require a grain meal. Of course there are instances where your horse will require feeding grain either because his or level of work will mandate it or because his or her health needs will demand it but by talking with your veterinarian and having your horse’s nutritional needs analyzed you’ll be able to make an accurate determination.

This listing is far from definitive. There is certainly other ulcer diagnostic and prevention recommendations that your veterinarian is likely to recommend based on your specific needs. The above are simply account of my first hand experiences. Regardless of the reason you suspect that your horse suffers from ulcers by following these and other strategies recommended by your veterinarian you’ll be confident that you’ve done your best and soon be on your way to a happy and healthier horse.




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