Gastric ulcers can affect horses of any age and are particularly common in thoroughbred racehorses.

They occur when the lining of the stomach is eroded by prolonged exposure to its own naturally occurring acids.

The disease is now more specifically diagnosed as either Equine Squamous Gastric Disease (ESGD) or Equine Glandular Gastric Disease (EGGD) depending on the exact location of the ulcers in the stomach. 

ESGD affects between 80-100 per cent of racing and performance horses while EGGD is more common in performance and pleasure horses.

Causes of gastric ulcers

The components of a high-intensity training regime have proven to be the most common trigger for the occurrence of gastric ulcers. Sometimes, they present within just three months of the beginning of a program.

When racehorses are fed high-grain diets twice a day, it reduces their desire to graze continually.

This exposes their stomachs to additional levels of acid without the feed and saliva that neutralises it.

The most common causes of gastric ulcers are:

  • a tailored high-protein training diet
  • Intense physical activity
  • the stresses of confinement – horses are social animals and don’t like solitude
  • the administration of chronic non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs

Symptoms of gastric ulcers

Horses suffering gastric ulcers are in no condition to perform at their best.

They may be suffering loss of appetite, weight loss, poor body or coat condition, colic, moodiness and failure to train or race to standard.

Some may be found on their backs or cast in their stalls in an effort to relieve the pain.

Diagnosing gastric ulcers

The only conclusive method of diagnosing gastric ulcers is with a gastroscopy.

This involves lightly sedating the horse and passing an endoscope through the nostril, into the horse’s stomach to inspect its lining.

To do so successfully, the stomach will need to be empty, hence the horse must be kept off feed for up to 12 hours and not allowed to drink water for up to six hours prior.

Treating gastric ulcers

Treating gastric ulcers revolves around reducing hydrochloric acid levels in the stomach.

This may involve:

  • more frequent feedings 
  • giving the horse free access to grass or hay
  • adding a protein source such as alfalfa hay and a higher calcium content to the feed
  • reducing certain grains that form volatile fatty acids 
  • decreasing stress levels by examining the horse’s role and increasing interaction with other horses
  • a break from training of up to 30 days will often allow gastric ulcers to resolve

Medications are sometimes a last resort and may be used if other treatment options are not available or the horse presents with clinical disease. 

Omeprazole, formerly only available in paste formulations, now comes in granules.

It can be sprinkled on dry horse feed for convenience of administration.

An equine veterinarian can advise of its suitability.

Antacids generally prove ineffective because they are consumed with the feed which does the same job.

Preventative measures for gastric ulcers

While almost every racehorse will suffer gastric ulcers at some stage during its career, there are measures that can be taken to limit their occurrence.

These revolve around keeping stress levels for the horse as low as possible, feeding frequently and always having free-choice access to grass or hay.

This gives the horse a natural antacid to counter gastric ulcers, just as nature intended.

Diet is key and while racehorses require a high protein diet, this should be balanced with a lower protein feed such as oats to act as a buffer to the acids.

There are many supplements marketed to prevent gastric ulcers but with little substance and most cannot be recommended.

Contact us today

If you suspect your horse may have a gastric ulcer, it is important to seek an immediate consultation with a qualified equine veterinarian.

They will then advise the best course of action to have your racehorse happy, healthy and back competing to the best of its ability as soon as possible.

Gastric ulcers can be very uncomfortable for horses and while inconvenient, they can usually be treated and managed reasonably quickly and effectively.

At Newmarket Equine, we provide a dedicated service to the thoroughbred racing industry. The practice has a long and proud history based around the excellence of our staff.

Our vets are experienced in all matters including medical, reproduction and quarantine procedures.

State-of-the-art equipment is provided including digital radiology, digital ultrasound, shock wave therapy, video endoscopy and IRAP processing. 

Contact us today to book an appointment.

The information contained on this article is general in nature and does not take into account your horse’s individual needs. You should consider whether the information is appropriate to your horse’s needs, and seek professional advice from a qualified vet.

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