Hoof Nutrition Intelligence is a twice-a-month web segment that is designed to add to the education of footcare professionals when it comes to effectively feeding the hoof. The goal of this web-exclusive feature is to zero in on specific areas of hoof nutrition and avoid broad-based articles that simply look at the overall equine feeding situation.
Below you will find the latest question and answer installment that you can share with your footcare clients.
Q: While there can be other series concerns, can gastric ulcers in horses result in poor hoof quality?
By Richard Shakalis, DDS
More than 52% of horses of all breeds from 1-24 years old had gastric ulcers during a recent gastro-endoscopic study. In fact, the Equine Gastric Ulcer Council found gastric ulcers were present in 80%-90% of competitive horses in training.
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. While treating gastric ulcers with acid blockers sometimes helps to relieve the symptoms, they may prolong the problem.
During a 2019 swing through the major horse racing training facilities in Florida, SBS researchers conducted more than 20 one-on-one 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 horses under their control was, in most cases, considered a trade secret.
Although most of these 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.
Even though the horse’s stomach makes up only 8% of the 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 may be as quick as 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.
In our survey of the horse trainers at the Florida training facilities, those who fed their horses four or five small meals a day had far fewer problems with gastric ulcers than those who fed 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. Feed deprivation, such as in colic management cases, can result in erosion and ulceration of the gastric mucosa as well.
In the case of race horses, they are often not fed immediately before training or racing, which could result in a significant increase in stomach acidity. In addition, horses can become excited during training and racing, further lowering the gastric pH level and contributing to gastric ulceration. Studies show that the greater the degree of training activity, the increasing severity of gastric lesions.
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 do, excess acid can ulcerate this protective layer. Unless the mucous lining is strong enough to withstand the powerful acids produced here, ulcers often develop.
Various therapeutic protocols have been suggested for the control of equine gastric ulcers. These include antacids such as 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.
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 these expensive acid blocking drugs by strengthening the epithelial cells that line the gastro-intestinal tract during the period of time 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, 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 this type of lecithin not only treats the symptoms of equine ulcers, but 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.
For convenience, premixed premium U.S. manufactured lecithin/apple pectin granules are now available. However, it’s best to avoid China produced lecithin and pectins.
Richard Shakalis is a co-founder and researcher for SBS Equine Products in Naples, Fla.
Hoof Nutrition Intelligence is brought to you by W.F. Young Co. (Absorbine).
Like many significant achievements, Absorbine® grew out of humble beginnings—and through the tenacity of someone willing to question the status quo. In this case, it was a young woman in late 19th-century Massachusetts: Mary Ida Young. Her husband, Wilbur Fenelon Young, was an enterprising piano deliveryman who relied on the couple’s team of horses to make deliveries throughout the Northeast. Inspired by Mary Ida and Wilbur’s vision, Absorbine® has continued to add innovative products throughout the years — products used every day by horse owners around the world. Which is why, since 1892, we’ve been The Horse World’s Most Trusted Name®.