Stomach ulcers in horses are a major health epidemic in the equine world and may be preventable or more easily treatable. More than 52% of horses of all breeds from one to 24 years old had gastric ulcers during a recent gastro-endoscopic study (Murray et al.). The Equine Gastric Ulcer Council found that gastric ulcers were present in 80-90% of competitive horses in training.
Most people do not know for sure whether their horses have gastric ulcers. They may only suspect the presence of ulcers because of small noticeable changes in their horse’s condition such as their feet. For example, adult horses with ulcers can exhibit a combination of poor hoof condition, rough hair coat, loss of appetite, dullness, attitude changes, decreased performance, weight loss and colic. Treating gastric ulcers with acid blockers sometimes helps to relieve the symptoms, but may prolong the problem.
During a recent swing last season through the major horse racing training facilities in Florida, researchers from SBS EQUINE, led by Ray Tricca, conducted more than 20, one-on-one, private interviews with many of the top trainers in the country. Although most of the trainers share health information regularly with their neighbors, their feeding program for the horses under their control was, in most cases, considered a trade secret. After all, it is a competitive industry, and feed is what fuels the animal. However, although most of the trainers surveyed admitted to having problems with gastric equine ulcers, those who said that they had few or no problems at all, did seem to follow a similar feeding pattern.
Horses have evolved to eat many small meals per day, almost on a continual basis. Even though the horse’s stomach is only 8% of digestive tract (8 quarts or 2 gallons), the emptying time of the stomach can be a mere 12 minutes and the rate of passage through the small intestine 1 foot per minute. The small volume of the stomach and the rapid passage of food to the small intestine is the reason that horses can and are designed to eat almost continuously. Gastric pH can drop lower than 2 soon after a horse stops consuming food and the stomach will continue to produce strong acid even if food is not present.
We found in our survey of the horse trainers at the Florida training facilities, those that fed their horses four or five small meals a day had far fewer problems with gastric ulcers than those who fed their horses two or three meals a day. The bottom line is concentrate feeding can inadvertently contribute to ulcer formation by its influence on increasing serum gastric levels, lowering the horse’s roughage intake and reducing the amount of time spent eating. Imposed feed deprivation, such as in colic management cases, can result in erosion and ulceration of the gastric mucosa as well.
In the case of racehorses, they are often not fed immediately before training or racing. This could result in a significant increase in stomach acidity. Also, horses can become excited during training and racing, further lowering gastric pH. These influences contribute to gastric ulceration. Studies show that the greater the degree of training activity, the increasing severity of gastric lesions.
Ulcer Formation Mechanism
Gastric ulceration in horses results from an imbalance between offensive factors, e.g. acid and pepsin, and defensive factors such as mucus, bicarbonate, prostaglandins, mucosal blood flow and epithelial restitution. Most of these ulcers occur in the fundic portion of the stomach, which has a phospholipid rich, protective epithelial layer. Disruption of this barrier (mucous, surface-active phospholipids) is initial to the destruction of the stomach’s surface epithelium. Because most domesticated horses do not feed constantly like nature designed them to, excess acid can ulcerate this protective layer. Unless the mucous lining is strong enough to withstand the powerful acids produced here, ulcers often develop.
Management of Equine Gastric Ulcers
Various therapeutic protocols have been suggested for the control of equine gastric ulcers. These include antacids (think of products such Tums and Rolaids) and H2 acid blockers such as the pharmaceutical products Pepsid and Prilosec. These treatments can help reduce the pain and discomfort associated with the stomach acid and their symptoms, but there may be unintended negative consequences from long-term use of these products.
Stomach acid is an extremely important component of the initial stage of the digestive process. If in this initial stage of digestion there is not adequate acid present to break down food, it will pass into the small intestine only partially digested. The nutrients won’t be in a form that can be absorbed in the small intestine and the horse will not be adequately nourished. Acid blockers and antacid products are usually recommended for short-term use until the stomach lining can heal somewhat. Horses can be weaned off of these expensive acid blocking drugs by strengthening the epithelial cells that line the gastro-intestinal tract during the duration (time period) that these drugs are being administered.
There is a better way to protect the horse from and treat gastric ulcers. When the horse is given premium lecithin granules combined with apple pectin as a nutritional supplement to his normal diet, the acid in the fundic portion of the stomach immediately breaks it down into a mix of reactive phospholipids. The phospholipids in lecithin are both hydrophilic and hydrophobic and interact with the cell membranes of the mucosal epithelium to strengthen the mucosa. Research has shown that this type of lecithin not only treats the symptoms of equine ulcers, it can cure the ulcers as well by making the stomach lining stronger at the cellular membrane level. The beneficial effects of a diet supplemented with premium lecithin and pectin also enhances the rest of the digestive tract as well. There has been much research to substantiate this. They also observed horses fed premium lecithin and apple pectin had reduced levels of excitability and anxiety that was attributed to the healing of gastric ulcers.
A well-studied health condition in horses is gastric ulcers. The presence of these ulcers is associated with poor hoof condition, irritability and poor performance. Treatment options such as reducing stomach acid production is expensive and can disrupt the normal digestive process by not allowing the food to begin its initial breakdown as nature intended. A less expensive and more effective treatment is to give horses a nutritional supplement of premium lecithin containing apple pectins. The lecithin strengthens the epithelial lining of the stomach treating and preventing gastric ulcers and allows for the proper absorption of nutrients in the small intestine, which can significantly improve the hoof condition. The apple pectins blended in with the premium lecithin help to buffer the stomach lining and slow the digestive process. Pectins also are prebiotic in that they support beneficial microflora in the gastro-intestinal tract.
Lecithin/apple pectin blends have proven to be a valuable natural supplement for horses to treat and prevent gastric ulcers. Lecithin/apple pectin granules can be added quickly and easily to a horse’s daily feed ration or to almost any homemade horse treat recipe. Ulcer management using lecithin/apple pectin granules with feedings or after training can help protect and strengthen the stomach from the damaging effects of excess acid, which is a natural occurrence in horses. They also strengthen the epithelial cells that line the entire gastro-intestinal tract so that acid-blocking products can be gradually reduced and eventually eliminated. For convenience, premixed premium U.S. manufactured lecithin/apple pectin granules are now available. It’s best to avoid China produced lecithin and pectins. For more informative articles and information on gastric equine ulcers or hoof care, please visit SBS Equine.
Special thanks to the contributions of Dr. Craig Russett, PhD in animal nutrition.
Geor RJ, and Papich (1990). Medical therapy for gastrointestinal ulceration in foals. Comp. Cont. Edu. Pract. Vet. 12:403-412.
Ghyczy M, Hoff E, Garzib J. (1996). Gastric mucosa protection by phosphatidylcholine (PC) Presented at: The 7th International Congress on Phospholipids, Brussels, Belgium.
Jones WE. (1999). Equine gastric ulcer syndrome. J. Equine Vet. Sci. 19:296-306.
Murray MJ, Murray CM, Sweeney HJ, Weld J, Wingfield NJ Digby, Stoneham SJ. (1996). The prevalence of gastric ulcers in foals in Ireland and England: An edoscopic survey. Equine Vet. J. 28(5):368-374
Russett JC. (1997). Lecithin applications in animal feeds. Specialty Products Research Notes. LEC-D-56.
Traub JL, Gallina AM, Grant BD, Reed SM, Gavin PR, Paulsen LM. (1983). Phenylututazone toxicosis in the foal. Am. J. Vet. Res. 44:1410-1418.
Vatitstas NJ, Snyder JR, Carlson B, Johnson B, Arthur RM, Lloyd KL. (1994). Epidemiological study of gastric ulceration in the Thoroughbred racehorse: 202 horses 1992-1993. 40th AAEP Convention Proceedings. pp 125-126.
Wright B. (1999). Equine digestive tract structure and function. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture