A common problem in performance horses is gastric (stomach) ulcers. Some studies have shown that up to 90% of race horses in training have ulcers, and it is believed a large percentage of other types of performance horses also have ulcers. There are two portions of the equine stomach; one portion is protected from ulceration but the other portion is not. In horses who are resting, the unprotected portion of the stomach is rarely affected by stomach acid; but when the horse exercises, abdominal pressure decreases the stomach size and more of the unprotected portion of the stomach is exposed to acid, thereby causing ulcers to develop.
Another thing that has been related to ulcer formation is a horse’s diet. A recent study was performed at Texas A&M to determine if there was a difference in gastric ulcers in horses fed alfalfa hay versus horses fed Bermuda grass hay. The study involved 24 quarter horse yearlings that were fed alfalfa hay and a grain concentrate for 28 days and later were fed coastal Bermuda and the same grain concentrate for another 28 days. Horses were housed in dry lots and were exercised 3 days per week. Results indicated that horses fed alfalfa hay had significantly less stomach ulcers than horses fed coastal hay. So if you have a horse that has had problems with stomach ulcers, or a performance horse in whom you want to prevent ulcers, consider feeding alfalfa hay instead of a grass hay like coastal or Bermuda.
Other causes of decreased stomach pH (leading to gastric ulcers) include intermittent feeding, stall confinement, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. It is healthier for a horse to graze than to stand in a stall; for stalled horses, continuous feeding of hay is the best way to prevent the decrease of gastric pH. NSAIDs can decrease the protection of the stomach, which is why you should only give phenylbutazone (bute) or banamine at the dosage and for the length of time prescribed by your veterinarian.
Common symptoms of stomach ulcers include intermittent colic, decreased appetite, poor performance, and stretching out to urinate. Diagnosis of ulcers requires an endoscope to be placed in the stomach to visualize the ulcers, and there is a new blood test that is apparently accurate. Although there are numerous products available in the horse magazines claiming to treat and prevent stomach ulcers, only Gastrogard is actually FDA-approved for this purpose and can be used once daily for the condition.