Research into equine ulcers has revealed that 90% of racehorses, more than 50% of performance horses, and as many as 37% of pleasure horses suffer from gastric ulcers. That is a stunningly large amount of the horse population.
Ulcers occur in horses largely because of how we now keep them: contributing factors include feeding large amounts of concentrated high energy feeds, lower amounts of forage, greater intervals between feeding, and stall confinement. Horses evolved to eat small quantities of forage continuously throughout the day. By changing their dietary regime, we have created a digestive environment with excess acidity that causes ulceration of the stomach; when a horse grazes all day, the large amount of forage in its stomach absorbs a significant amount of the digestive acids, keeping levels in the stomach low. Add to that the anxiety and stresses that can be caused by intense training and/or competition, and it’s no surprise that ulcers are an endemic problem.
I have an OTTB that’s a prime candidate for ulcers. He’s an anxious horse that cribs, weaves, and frets. I have him on an ulcer-prevention lifestyle: he’s turned out 24/7, receives no grain concentrate, and has access to grass hay continuously. While he has good appetite and maintains his weight well, he is still anxious.
Recently I read that research from Texas A&M University showed that feeding alfalfa to horses either prevented or was therapeutic in treating stomach ulcers. According to Dr. Pete Gibbs, Extension horse specialist, the alfalfa hay buffers acid production.
The research conducted at the University comprised 24 quarter horses from 12-16 months old that were separated into two treatment groups. One group was fed Bermuda grass hay and the other fed alfalfa hay to meet the daily roughage needs. The yearlings received forced exercise during the study.
The horses were examined internally with an endoscope at the beginning and end of two 28-day trials.
Although it’s commonly thought that horses turned out on pastures are better off than those that are confined, it turns out that if horses only receive grass hay, they can still get gastric ulcers. In this study, ulcer scores increased when alfalfa was removed from the horses’ diets and they were turned out on pasture.
As a result of the research, Gibbs said that horse owners have two options for preventing and treating ulcers: they can give their horses a pharmaceutical product that decreases acid production or they can manage their horse’s diets by adding feeds such as alfalfa, which offer buffering capabilities. He recommends that horses weighing between 1,000-1,300 pounds should be fed about 1 pound of alfalfa after a grain meal. Researchers at Texas A&M will next investigate what it is about alfalfa and alfalfa products that lessens the occurrence and severity of horses’ ulcers.
As for my horse, I have started feeding him alfalfa/timothy cubes as part of his forage ration. I’m reluctant to feed him straight alfalfa, as he’s quite a hot horse by nature. However, the 50/50 mix does not seem to make him overly energetic. I’ve started to feed him the cubes twice a day along with free choice grass hay and hay stretcher pellets. I’ll report back as to whether this dietery change helps with his behavior.