Digestive Support for Horses with Ulcers

This is a topic that I am have a lot of personal experience with, and my horses have definitely been my teachers in terms of how to deal with this common equine health concern.  My first experience with ulcers occurred when one of our newly weaned foals kept acting colicky and was diagnosed with ulcers.  At the time, we weren’t familiar with natural horse care and therefore followed the recommended protocol of 30 days of Gastroguard (at a cost of around $900).  The colt felt better after 30 days, however his symptoms came back even worse within a few months, warranting a trip to the University of Missouri Veterinary Teaching Hospital.   He was scoped and again diagnosed with ulcers and put back on the same medication.  And so the cycle continued until he colicked so badly that he required a colic surgery.  He survived the surgery and seemed to be doing fine, but within a few months he developed ulcers again and colicked again, this time so badly that we had to euthanize him.   So, this promising two-year-old colt who suffered for a year and a half would never see adulthood, and we were $15,000 poorer because of all the vet bills we paid in trying to help him.  This experience set me on the path to using natural horse care and herbs to take care of my breeding and performance horses.  During the experience with our colt I was desperately trying to find the root cause of the recurring ulcers and colic and a way to resolve it, and while it was too late for him, the knowledge I subsequently gained has helped many horses since then.

Gastroguard didn't address the root cause of his ulcers and we lost him
Amenhotep – My Inspiration for Becoming an Herbalist

Fast forward a few years and we had another weanling colt that was showing the tell-tale signs of ulcers, including teeth grinding, laying down frequently, and acting colicky.  This time I had a working knowledge of herbs and put him on an herbal digestive support formula.  Within a week he was no longer showing symptoms, and he never had another bout of ulcers.  We kept him on the herbs for five months to ensure that we had addressed the digestive system imbalance.  He is now with his forever family and they love trail riding him.  This second experience with ulcers cost us about $300 for the five months of herbs.  This tale of two colts was an important learning experience and changed forever the way we manage our horses.  On the one hand, we had $15,000 in vet bills and no horse to show for it, and on the other we spent $300 and the horse is still alive, 10 years later. Read on to learn more about this prevalent horse health issue, and some ideas on how to solve it.

His ulcers got better with digestive supporting herbs
Zameel – Proof that Herbs Work!

Equine Ulcer Statistics

According to the American Association of Equine Practitioners, Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS) has been estimated to range from “25 to 50 % in foals and 60 to 90 % in adult horses, depending on age, performance, and evaluated populations.”  Performance horses fall into the higher range of these percentages, as they are usually under a lot of stress.  For example, studies have shown that up to 70% of race horses, 93% of endurance horses, and 60% of show horses suffer from gastric ulcers. I can also say that this is the most common complaint I hear from my clients – either their horse has been diagnosed with ulcers, or they suspect it due to the tell-tale symptoms these horses exhibit.

The Equine Digestive Tract

The overview I am providing in this section is based on information I learned in an equine nutrition I took from the University of Edinburgh a few years ago.  Horses in their natural environment are continually grazing and moving, and confinement and limited meals is therefore a significant departure from their natural state.  The horse’s digestive system was designed to process high amounts of lower quality forage which is ingested on an almost continual basis.  The horse’s gastro intestinal tract runs from the mouth to the anus, and includes the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach and small intestine (foregut) and the large intestine (hindgut).  The digestive tract is more than 100 feet long in a mature horse and is mostly lined with mucus membranes.  Associated organs involved in digestion are the teeth, tongue, salivary glands, liver and pancreas.

The horse's digestive system was designed to process mostly fiber and forage
The Equine Digestive System

The digestive process begins when a horse chews food, which causes saliva to be produced.  Saliva helps to buffer stomach acids, and much more saliva is produced when eating roughage than grain. The chewed food then moves down the esophagus and enters the stomach. The horse’s stomach is relatively small and inelastic and is divided into the non-glandular (where food enters, no mucus layer) and glandular sections (where hydrochloric acid is produced, protected by a mucus layer).  The stomach helps with pre-digestion of food and is constantly producing acid in the glandular section.  The next step in the digestive process is the small intestine, which is approximately 70 feet long, and is where much of the breakdown and absorption of the horse’s food happens via enzymatic activity.  Then the food moves into the large intestine, which is approximately 20 feet long, and consists of the cecum, large colon, small colon and rectum.  Digestion and absorption in the large intestine depend on microbial fermentation to break down fiber.  Over 400 species of microbes are located in the hindgut, including bacteria, fungi and protozoa.  By-products of the fermentation process are volatile fatty acids (VFA) and gases.  VFA’s provide energy for the horse.   However, consumption of large grain meals can cause an increase in VFAs which causes a decrease in the hindgut PH, resulting in the death of fiber degrading bacteria.  This can lead to problems like colic and laminitis. It is important to note that the microbes need time to adapt to changes in the diet, so abrupt changes in the feeding program can cause problems.  Also, since the hindgut is designed to process fiber, digestive issues occur when the horse is fed high levels of starch and low levels of forage.

While this is a very high-level and simplistic description of the equine digestive system, it does give us some important facts for maintain equine digestive health – horses need to have free choice access to high fiber forage to maintain healthy digestion, and minimal grain.  Ulcers commonly occur in the stomach, but can also be found in the hindgut.  Hindgut ulcers are more difficult to diagnose and treat.

What Are the Root Causes of Ulcers?

Un-natural horse care practices are at the root of the ulcer epidemic.  Horses were not designed to eat grain, and especially in large quantities, nor were they designed to go long periods without food.  Many horses get large grain meals but not enough roughage.  As we have seen, the horse’s stomach is always making acid, so if there is no incoming fiber to buffer the acid, then ulcers will form.  Imagine the horse that has been standing in his stall, his last meal long gone, and his owner takes him out for his workout.  All of that acid that is being produced is sloshing around in an empty stomach!  This is a recipe for ulcers. Stress is another contributing factor in equine ulcers.  Stall confinement, lack of social interaction, trailering, moving from one place to another, poor fitting tack, chronic pain, training, racing and going to competitions all create stress for horses.   Another stressful event is weaning time for foals.  In addition, the overuse of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like Bute can cause ulcers.  Finally, delayed gastric emptying and/or decreased gastric motility is another possible cause of ulceration, and is more of a factor with intense exercise.

Horses were designed to move 25 to 30 miles per day
Captivity is Stressful for Horses

Signs and Symptoms of Ulcers

There are a variety of signs and symptoms of ulcers, including:

  • Teeth grinding
  • Excessive salivation
  • Laying down frequently
  • Colic
  • Poor body condition and hair coat
  • Diarrhea
  • Poor appetite
  • Sensitivity to being saddled (“girthy)
  • Sore back
  • Bad attitude
  • Poor performance
  • Edema

A horse may exhibit a few or several of these symptoms, depending upon how severe the ulcers are, how long they have had ulcers, and their ability to tolerate pain.

Most horses with ulcers look poor
Poor Coat and Body Condition Can be a Sign of Ulcers

Diagnosis and Conventional Treatment of Ulcers

The main way vets diagnose ulcers is by a gastroscopy procedure, where the horse is fasted for twelve hours (fasting is a cause of ulcers), and then a scope is used to view the stomach wall.  The vet will also do a physical exam and bloodwork.  For hindgut ulcers, an abdominal ultrasound may be used.  Once ulcers are diagnosed, the horse is prescribed omeprazole (Gastrogard), which is a proton pump inhibitor that prevents the stomach wall from making gastric acid (the problem with this approach is that acid is needed to digest food and kill harmful microbes)!  Another drug that is sometimes used is sucralfate, which is an aluminum compound that coats and seals the ulcer to help with the healing process.  The trouble with this approach is that aluminum is a toxic heavy metal which causes damage to the nervous and digestive systems.

A Natural Solution

To get to the root cause of equine digestive problems, we must take a more holistic and natural approach to the management of our horses.  The goal is to create an environment that is close to how they would live in the wild as possible.  Read on to learn some steps to take to help your horses avoid this frustrating health issue.

Nutrition – Feed Your Horse Like a Horse

Horses in the wild spend most of their time foraging for whatever roughage they can find.  This is why the equine stomach is always producing acid, as discussed previously.  Therefore it is important to make sure our domesticated horses have access to free choice forage.  Some options include pasture, and if pasture is not available, providing free choice hay.  If the horse is an easy keeper or has a tendency to overeat, then a grazing muzzle can be used to curtail grass consumption along with a slow feeding hay bag or hay bale holder to slow them down when eating hay.  If you choose to feed grain, keep it minimal (one pound per feeding at most).   Also make sure that the grain is non-GMO and free of soy and wheat, which are allergenic foods that are hard on the digestive system, and are also contaminated with Roundup if they aren’t organic. An alternative to feeding grain is to use hay pellets or cubes like timothy, or a combination of timothy and alfalfa (make sure the alfalfa is non-GMO). You just add water to hydrate the pellets and then mix in any herbs and other supplements.  I feed my horses timothy pellets, pasture and hay. They always have access to something to eat.  My horses are also fed herbs every day, based on their body systems that are needing support.  I also feed free choice sea salt and organic kelp, which is a great source of trace minerals.  Finally, I feed camelina oil for Omega 3 fats.

confinement is a major source of stress
Horses Need Room to Roam and Graze in Order to be Happy & Healthy
Stress Management

Most horses have jobs to do, so some level of stress is unavoidable.  However, there are things that we can do to support our horses to keep their stress levels as low as possible.  For starters, horses are herd animals that are always on the move, so allowing them to be in a herd and not confined will help them to live more like their wild counterparts.  Another factor is utilizing natural horsemanship such as groundwork to help your horse to be confident, calm and happy when doing his work and going to new places.  Making sure your tack fits properly can help eliminate the potential pain issues that come from poor fitting tack.  If you own a performance horse or hard working, supporting their nervous system is also very important.  Herbal blends like Neuro, Mellow or Painaway (from Equine Natural Care – ENC) help maintain a balanced nervous system in hard working horses.   Another great blend for helping horses deal with stress is Pituitary & Adrenal (ENC), which contains adaptagenic herbs like astragalus, eleuthero root, rhodiola, and shizandra berry.  Adaptagenic herbs support the adrenal glands and help the body have a better adapted stress response.  When travelling, make sure your horse has access to free choice forage, and give them a little time off once they return from their trip to recover. Essential oils can also be helpful for stress management.  Some oils I like and use on my horses include Valor, Peace & Calming, T-Away and Lavender from Young Living.  Regular massage and chiropractic appointments are also helpful for hard working horses, and acupuncture can also be useful.   Finally, supporting your horse’s structural system with herbs like Joint Plus, Structural BLD or Structural DTX can help them do their job without pain.

Neuro from Equine Natural Care is an amazing blend for stressed out horses
Herbs that Support the Nervous System can Help Horses Deal with Stress
Reducing Chemical Exposure

Chemicals like wormers, vaccines and pharmaceutical drugs can negatively alter the microbiome in the gut, resulting in poor digestion.  I try to avoid these unless it is an absolute emergency.  For example, if a horse has injured itself and needs some analgesic support, I use the Painaway herb blend.  If they need extra immune support, I use a blend like Infection Wipeout or Immune VRL (ENC).  I use ENC’s all-natural fly spray which is made with essential oils and Worm DTX for insect and parasite control.  A common-sense vaccine approach is outlined by this holistically oriented vet:  http://hl.depaoloequineconcepts.com/?q=node/6.

Digestive Support Herbs & Supplements

There are some wonderful herbs that can help maintain a balanced digestive tract.  One of these is slippery elm, which is a mucilaginous herb that has a soothing effect on mucous membranes and absorbs acid and irritants in the stomach.  Marshmallow root is another mucilaginous herb which supports the intestines and mucus membranes.  Fennel seed is another wonderful digestive herb that has been historically used for indigestion, gas and diarrhea. Licorice root is an anti-inflammatory herb that is useful for supporting a healthy stomach. Irish Moss is another mucilaginous herb that soothes irritated mucus membranes.  Myrrh gum is an anti-inflammatory digestive tonic. Plantain leaf has historically been used for injuries, ulcers and inflammation.  Scullcap is a relaxing nervine herb that supports the nervous system during times of stress.  These herbs are combined with carrot powder which supplies enzymes and antioxidants to create the amazing Digestive ULR blend (from ENC).  This is an herb blend that supports the entire equine digestive tract, and can be fed on a daily basis.  When combined with a nervous system blend like Neuro, Mellow or Painaway and Pituitary & Adrenal, Digestive ULR is a powerful ally for horses with digestive system imbalances as it gets to the root causes of the stress.

Another good blend from ENC to keep on hand while you are getting your horse’s digestive system rebalanced is KOLIK, which contains herbs like cascara sagrada, catnip, ginger, licorice, lobelia and marshmallow.  The KOLIK blend can be used in times of digestive distress because it supports peristalsis and the dispelling of gas from the digestive tract. Another important product for supporting the equine digestive tract is probiotics, which help support a balanced microbiome, which in turn supports digestion and immune function.  We carry a great equine probiotic/prebiotic called Novequin DPF from Arthur Andrew.

slippery elm has been used to treat ulcers in humans
Slippery Elm is an Amazing Digestive System Supporting Herb

The best solution to dealing with equine ulcers is preventing them in the first place with holistic and natural horse management practices.  This includes minimizing your horse’s stress, utilizing natural horsemanship techniques, feeding your horse like a horse with plenty of forage, and feeding herbal supplements to give your horse the extra support he needs to perform his job.  Ulcers are a man-made problem, so it is up to us as our stewards of our horses to find a solution.  Our horses give so much so that we can have enjoyment from our activities with them and we can show them our gratitude by supporting them with a natural care regimen so they can be healthy and happy.  I have seen this regimen work with many horses through the years, and hope that you will give it a try.  Please check beck soon as I have some exciting blog topics coming up!


Sources used for this blog post include: