Treating ulcers is only the first step of fixing the problem; preventing them from recurring is the tricky part. For the last few weeks, as I use medication to heal Zelda’s ulcers, I’ve been thinking about feeding to prevent ulcers in the future.
The tricky part for me is that Zelda doesn’t fit the mold of a horse who has ulcers. She already eats a ton of hay, she eats very little grain (and the grain she eats is Triple Crown Senior, which is low starch, high fat and fiber-based), she doesn’t get NSAIDs, is not a competition horse, and she has 24/7 turnout with a herd that she loves.
So, what to change?
More Hay, Including Alfalfa
Since horses were designed to eat continuously, they have very small stomachs. Part of the way they buffer stomach acid is from the saliva generated by chewing because it contains sodium bicarbonate. This system works well, providing the horse has continuous access to forage.
In the winter, there’s not much for the horses to eat. Maybe a small amount of grass, but not enough. So the first thing I did was make sure Zelda has hay in front of her almost 100% of the time. To accomplish this, I pulled out the Nibble Nets which we’d gotten lazy about using. Nibble Nets slow down the consumption of hay by forcing the horse to eat it from small holes. Zelda is pretty adroit at pulling the hay out, but it definitely lasts longer than just putting it out on the ground. Since we feed dinner usually by 5 in the winter (it’s too dark and cold to feed later), it’s a long wait until breakfast is served.
The next thing I added to her diet was alfalfa hay. Research at A&M University has shown that feeding alfalfa hay can both help ulcers heal and prevent them. That’s an easy change. Horses don’t need that much — about a pound at time — so it can be easily added to her daily ration. Right now I give her a flake in the morning and two overnight.
Papaya contains enzymes that can enhance digestion and compounds that increase mucous production in the digestive tract. Papaya has been used successfully for ulcers in the equine very safely for many years. And it can be fed for long periods time without side effects. The only issue with payapa is sugar. The fruit naturally contains a moderate amount of sugar and many papaya products contain added sugar. This makes it a bit tricky to feed for horses that are insulin resistant or sensitive to carbohydrates.
I started by feeding raw papaya, but have since started adding papaya puree, which is easier. Zelda wasn’t interested in eating a piece of papaya but has no problem with eating it mixed into her grain. Same with Freedom (I’ve been trying to make his diet more ulcer friendly as well). She gets 2 oz of puree twice a day or about a quarter of a fresh papaya twice a day. During the summer, when papaya is more readily available, I might go back to feeding fresh again.
Another natural product that can help protect the fragile equine stomach is Chia seeds. When soaked, chia seeds have a mucilaginous nature, a naturally occurring, gel-like substance found in most plants. The mucilage and quercetin content of chia seeds helps protect and heal the mucosal lining throughout the stomach and remainder of the gastrointestinal tract. Flax seeds are also an option, although there is some controversy over whether or not they need to be ground to be effective (I never ground flax because it starts to degrade very quickly). Chia does not need to be ground to be bioavailable.
Other reasons to feed chia seeds are that they are a naturally occurring source of Omega-3 fatty acids, are rich in vitamin B and are a good source of calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc and copper.
Right now I’m feeding a half a cup, twice a day to Zelda ,but plan to scale back to one third a cup twice a day.
I’ve been considering adding Aloe Vera to their feed, but there isn’t as much research about its efficacy for horses. Plus, I want to be careful about throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Zelda. So right now I’ll stick with the trifecta of Alfalfa, Papaya, and Chia.
In another post I’ll discuss some of the supplements and feed additives that are available.
What have you found to be effective at preventing ulcers for your horse?