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Feeding the Ulcer-Prone Horse

Which horses would you traditionally consider “ulcer-prone”? Racehorses in training? Western pleasure horses showing competitively on the American Quarter Horse Association circuit? Pony Clubbers’ games ponies? Injured horses on stall rest? Truth is, you could be right with any one of these. 
Equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS) can plague any age, breed, or sex, and the risk factors are many—certain types of training and exercise, nutrition, feeding practices, and stabling, to name a few. Let’s take a look at one very important aspect of preventing and managing ulcers: diet.
The Facts and Stats
The Equine Gastric Ulcer Council defines EGUS as a disease complex associated with ulceration of the esophageal, gastric, or duodenal mucosa. Clinical signs can include a reduced or poor appetite, weight loss, a dull skin and hair coat, attitude or behavior changes, impaired performance, reluctance to work, and colic. Researchers have yet to determine a very reliable detection method for ulcers via blood and fecal markers. Therefore, veterinarian-performed gastroscopy (viewing the horse’s stomach using a flexible lighted instrument passed through his nostril) is the only accurate diagnostic test. 
The council estimates that 30-50% of all foals and more than 50% of symptomatic ones have ulcers, and about 90% of symptomatic mature horses (older than 2) have ulcers. In the absence of any outward signs, about half of all mature horses have ulcers. 
In 1986, a research study supported by the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club brought awareness to the prevalence of equine gastric ulcers, specifically in racehorses. The researchers found that 66% of racehorses suffered from gastric ulcers, with that number rising to 88% if horses were actively training at the time. Statistics are likely similar among horses of other breeds and disciplines, and recent survey data appear to confirm this marked prevalence of ulcers in performance horses.
Nutritional Risk Factors
The way we feed our horses, from meal size to forage type, can increase or lower their risk of developing gastric ulcers.
Performance TypePrevalenceReference
Endurance (off-season)48%Tamzali et. al., 2010
Endurance (competition season)93%Tamzali et. al., 2010
Western Performance40%Bertone, 2000
English Performance60%McClure et al., 1999
Pleasure/Leisure53%Luthersson et al., 2009
Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds58-88%Orsini et al., 2009; Beli et al., 2011
Swedish Trotters70%Jonsson et al., 2006
Nutritional Risk Factors
The way we feed our horses, from meal size to forage type, can increase or lower their risk of developing gastric ulcers.
Mealtime Consider the horse’s natural food consumption pattern: grazing throughout the day, consuming small forage meals. Mastication, or chewing, stimulates glands in the mouth to produce saliva, which begins food breakdown and lubricates it to be swallowed. Food’s arrival in the stomach causes release of enzymes and acids, including hydrochloric acid that helps break food down into individual nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. But it is actually secreted continuously, even in the absence of food.
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