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How to prevent stomach ulcers in sport horses?

Unfortunately, many horses suffer from stomach problems. This problem occurs in leisure horses, but many sport horses also suffer from it. It is often thought that sport horses are “different” and should be kept and fed in a different way. But is this true? And how can you prevent stomach ulcers in sport horses?

What are stomach ulcers?

An ulcer is an irritation or wound in the stomach due to the stomach lining being affected. This causes inflammation of the stomach wall. A horse’s stomach has a capacity of about 10 litres and can be thought of as a sac. Stomach acid is continuously produced in the lower part and the wall in the lower part is therefore more resistant to this acid. The upper part of the stomach has a different lining, hence, it cannot withstand stomach acid as well. Due to various circumstances, the stomach wall can get damaged, causing the stomach lining to become affected, leading to the formation of ulcers that are painful – stomach ulcers.

Stomach ulcers in horses can be recognised by frequent yawning, colic-like symptoms and irritated/angry behaviour during saddling, lacing and brushing. Sometimes horses also air-suck to get rid of the painful feeling, but this actually worsens the stomach ulcers.

Stress cause stomach ulcers in sport horses

Horses are extremely sensitive animals and also have a very delicate digestive system. Any change (diet, housing, environment, etc.) produces some form of stress. Stress is a major cause of stomach ulcers in horses. By stress, you should not only think of a tense horse reacting explosively, but also the stress that is internal that a horse doesn’t show. Stress can be caused by something very small, think of:

  • Wrong management
  • Wrong training
  • Transport
  • No connection with another horse in the stable next door
  • Rider/amazone who is tense

For horses, it is therefore incredibly important to avoid as much (chronic) stress as possible. Be choosy about your stable management, training and keep looking at your horse as an individual. What works for someone else’s horse will not necessarily work for your horse.

Incorrect diet reason ulcers

Another major cause of stomach ulcers is incorrect feeding. It is often thought that sport horses are different and therefore should be fed differently. But sport horses are simply horses with the digestive system still virtually the same as that of the wild horse. So the “bite-step” principle also applies to sport horses. Many stomach ulcers occur because horses get too little roughage and go too long without feed. A horse’s stomach continuously produces gastric acid and saliva is needed to neutralise it. A horse only produces saliva while chewing. So the more a horse eats/chews, the more saliva production and the less the stomach acid affects the upper part of the stomach.

Horses should never be without food for more than 4 hours for this reason, and even that is too long for many horses! Especially sport horses that work more intensively need a well-filled stomach to prevent stomach acid from splashing around in the stomach. You should also be careful with concentrates. Always give it after roughage and not in too large quantities, because the stomach is small and cannot process everything at once. It is better to give several small portions a day than a large quantity once a day.

How to prevent stomach ulcers in sport horses?

Often more is asked of a sport horse than a leisure horse, but in the basics there is no difference. The digestive tract has not suddenly changed because we as humans put the stamp “sport horse” on a horse. We should therefore take into account how a horse is built and processes food. Only then can you prevent stomach ulcers! Therefore, make sure that:

  • Your horse is never without roughage for more than 4 hours.
  • Your horse gets small portions of concentrate distributed throughout the day.
  • You minimise stress by:
    • Optimising stable management.
    • Allowing your horse to spend whole days outside with other horses.
    • Training the horse appropriately – know your horse’s limits!
    • Giving your horse variety and sufficient rest.
  • Never train your horse on an empty stomach to prevent stomach acid from sloshing around.

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