With more horses stabled overnight now the weather has turned in the UK, thoughts go to their management and how to ensure good welfare. Although many owners are more aware of the importance of feeding enough forage and not allowing horses to have long periods of fasting, some horses are still left too long with nothing to eat. The issue for these horses is twofold – the risk of digestive disturbance and more specifically gastric ulcers, and the psychological distress.

Feed deprivation is actually used as a research model to induce ulcers, which means that it is a good, standard and reliable way of giving a horse gastric ulcers.

All breeds, types and ages of horses are susceptible to equine gastric ulcer syndrome or EGUS as it is termed. Prevalence can be up to 90% in the most intensively kept performance horses, and EGUS is also found in leisure horses. The gastric acid accumulation and splashing of horses kept in modern, intensive management systems is believed to be the causative factor.

A change in attitude, e.g. grumpiness or abnormally dull, is seen in many horses with EGUS.

To reduce the risk of gastric ulcers in stabled horses, it is imperative to avoid long periods of fasting. In order to do so, the appropriate forage that can be fed ideally free choice (ad lib) or limited just enough to maintain a healthy weight must be sourced. Research has shown that after 4 hours of fasting, gastric health starts to deteriorate. If a horse has his morning hay (or turnout) at 8 a.m., then his overnight forage must last until at least 4 a.m..

Free choice (ad lib) forage is the healthiest management strategy to reduce the risk of ulcers, but for good doers (horses who gain weight easily) this might be impossible if a very low energy forage cannot be sourced. Even late-cut grass hay is usually around 8MJ digestible energy per kilo, which is far too much for a good doer offered free choice.

The stomach health of horses left in stables or dry lots for over 4 hours with nothing to eat will deteriorate and the risk of ulcers increases significantly.

For horses fed restricted forage, small hole haynets and grid feeders can be used to slow forage intake rate. For good doers, straw can be added as part of the forage ration to allow a more appropriate intake level.

Supplements that buffer gastric acid, soothe and coat the stomach wall and promote healing are useful. Look for ingredients such as antacids, pectin, lecithin, and herbs such as slippery elm.

Management and feeding guidelines to help reduce the risk of gastric ulcers are:

  • Ensure as near to ad lib forage as possible (by selecting forage carefully)
  • Ensure as much pasture turnout as possible
  • Avoid starchy, sugary feeds and use high digestible fibre and oil for working or thin horses with higher energy requirements
  • Allow free access to water
  • Do not use electrolyte (salt) pastes
  • Use minimum possible dose of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS)
  • Use a stomach-supporting supplement during periods of unavoidable high risk

Please note: Always consult a qualified veterinarian if your horse has a health problem – do not attempt to diagnose and treat yourself. Dietary supplements can help to support health but should not be used instead of proper veterinary care and attention.

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About Clare MacLeod

Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr is one of the UK’s few registered independent equine nutritionists who also has expertise in health and fitness. She advises private and commercial clients in all sectors of the horse world and is a hands-on horse owner herself. Clare is passionate about correct nutrition as a foundation for good health, without which peak fitness is not possible. She states “Good nutrition isn’t everything, but there’s nothing without it”.