However, it is believed that many horses and ponies are still going undiagnosed and untreated, possibly due to the vague and often subtle nature of the clinical signs associated with this disease.
Whilst it’s generally recognised that around 90% of racehorses in training have ulcers, it’s perhaps less well known that about 60%, of performance horses and 40% of leisure horses and ponies are also affected - it would appear that ponies are equally vulnerable to developing ulcers.
Due to their vague and non-specific nature, clinical signs are often put down to back pain, behavioural issues or unwillingness to work. Additionally, they vary from one horse to another, and do not always correspond to the severity of the ulcers – some horses appear to be more stoic than others!
The signs include:
- Poor performance
- Picky appetite
- Mild weight loss
- Dull coat
- Discomfort on girth tightening
- Salivation and teeth grinding – foals
So why are horses so prone to ulcers?
Horses evolved as ‘trickle feeders’ with free access to light grazing and rest, 24/7, so their stomachs are designed to receive a constant supply of food. Because of this, acid is released into the stomach constantly, regardless of whether or not they are eating. Saliva, which helps to neutralise this acid is, on the other hand, mostly produced when they eat. In contrast, people produce acid only when they eat.
In natural conditions, the horse will have a constant flow of fibrous food. This fills and stabilises the lower part of the stomach, which is more resilient to contact with acid, and prevents acidic stomach juices from making prolonged contact with the more vulnerable upper part of the stomach, which has a different type of lining that is less resistant to acid damage.
With modern stabling and exercise, the risk of the more vulnerable, upper parts of the stomach being exposed to acid is increased. A regular and constant intake of forage will help absorb the acid, whereas restricted intake or a high cereal/low forage diet will make the stomach content very fluid.
Management regimes of many horses can result in relatively long periods with restricted food intake, increasing the risk of contact between acid and the upper part of the stomach, and ulcers can start to form. Also, during exercise, pressure from the abdomen compresses the stomach, which in turn pushes the fluid level to the upper, more vulnerable area.
We also know that training affects gastric acidity, and horses fed the same diet will have higher levels of gastric acid during training than when out of training. Other factors affecting the development of ulcers include travel, separation from peers and solitary confinement. The horse ‘show’ environment can also result in interrupted meals and irregular schedules.
Treatment and prevention
Examination via gastroscopy is the only definitive way to diagnose ulcers, and studies have shown the most effective treatment is the acid inhibitor, omeprazole, the only active ingredient licensed for the treatment and prevention of equine ulcers. For those horses where the risk factors remain high, due to the training regime for example, studies have shown that an ongoing preventative dose of omeprazole can help prevent the ulcers from returning.
Milbourn Equine Vets regularly hold Gastroscope Clinics and during October we are offering our usual great discounted promotion rates at our Ashford and Benenden clinics on 3rd and 18th October
For first timers - £105.00 including sedation. All other horses - £198.00
N.B. Any medication or hospitalisation if needed will be extra. In addition to this animal health company, Merial are also helping support our Awareness Month and if your horse requires treatment for ulcers Grade 1 and above, we can provide a 4 week course of ulcer treatment for the price of 3.
Please call our Ashford Clinic on 01233 500505 or Hawkhurst on 01580 752301.