Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind? The Hidden Problems In Your Horse's Stomach

Is your horse off color? Has he lost his appetite? Is he performing poorly? All these signs can be indications of gastric ulcers.

Up to 90% of racehorses in training may be affected by gastric ulcers. But not only racehorses suffer from this condition. Surveys have found that up to 60% of sport horses and 35% of leisure horses are affected.

It is only since advances in technology have made it possible to examine the inside of the stomach that the true expanded of the problem has come to light. The only way to find out if a horse has gastric ulcers is by using a gastroscope. This flexible tube is passed through a nostril and on into the stomach. A small video camera fitted to the end displays an image of the inside of the stomach on a television screen. In smaller ponies, the stomach is within the reach of standard equipment. But for horses, a gastroscope up to 3 meters long may be needed,

The inner surface of the stomach can be divided into two parts according to the different types of cells that make up the lining. The upper, non-glandular, part is pale pink. It is in this part that gastric ulcers typically occur. The lower part of the stomach is darker in color and is covered with acid-secreting glands.

The glands secret acid to break down food material. This occurs continuously, regardless of whether the horse is eating or not. On the other hand, saliva is only produced when the horse is eating. Under natural grazing conditions the horse gifts many of the time grazing, which ensures a continuous supply of food material and saliva to dilute the acidic stomach contents.


What is the cause of ulcers? Although the lower part of the stomach can cope with being bathed continuously in the acidic stomach contents, the upper portion can not. Anything that leaves the upper portion of the stomach in contact with the acidic fluid increases the risk of ulcers. Unfortunately, that includes many common management practices. Stabling, concentrate feeding, intensive exercise, and transport have all been shown to increase the risk of ulcers. Essentially, what happens is that the stomach starts to digest itself.

The mildest cases may just have one or two small ulcers. But severely affected horses can have extensive areas of deep ulceration.

Even though they may have severe ulcers, horses rarely show dramatic signs of illness or pain. The often subtle signs that ulcers produce allow many to go undetected. Non-specific signs such as loss of appetite, poor performance, and recurrent colic, are commonly seen in horses with gastric ulcers.

Gastric ulcers will usually respond to treatment with modern medication that reduces the acid production. Many owners notice an improvement within a few days of starting treatment.

But there is a risk that the ulcers will return once the treatment stops. So it is also important to address the underlying causes. By trying to provide a more natural lifestyle for the horse, it may be possible to balance its needs with the requirements for training. For example, feed the best quality roughage so that high carbohydrate feeds can be kept to a minimum. Give several small meals throughout the day. Allow some turnout time daily.

If you are concerned that your horse might have gastric ulcers speak to your veterinarian.