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  • Q:

    I own a 12-year-old Oldenburg-Thoroughbred gelding that I show in the adult-amateur hunter division. He consumes a typical diet of textured feed and mixed grass hay, and he holds his weight well except when he’s worked especially hard, and then he tends to lose condition.  He has had on-again, off-again problems with gastric ulcers over the past few years, and I want to be sure I am doing the most I can for him. The ulcers were treated with omeprazole. Can you recommend any changes to his diet that might help with keeping ulcers at bay?

  • A:

    As you probably know, gastric ulcers are common in performance horses. Researchers estimate that well over three-quarters of all performance horses are afflicted. The high incidence of ulcers in performance horses results, in part, from the way these horses are fed and managed. Large grain meals and extended periods of fasting lead to excessive gastric acid output without adequate saliva protection, paving the way for ulcer formation.

    One of the easiest ways to keep your gelding ulcer-free is through the liberal feeding of forage.  When he is not turned out on pasture, he should have free access to good-quality hay. Because your horse has problems with weight loss during periods of hard work, you might want to consider adding alfalfa hay to his diet.  Alfalfa will increase the caloric intake, allowing him to better keep condition when being worked harder than usual.

    Alfalfa (lucerne) might be an appropriate choice for another reason. Research suggests that the type of hay fed to horses has a significant impact on acid neutralization and the incidence of gastric ulcers. Researchers conducted a study in which six horses were fed either alfalfa hay with concentrate or bromegrass hay without concentrate. They believed the alfalfa and concentrate diet would produce more ulcers than the bromegrass diet. The researchers were surprised to find that the alfalfa and concentrate diet reduced the number and severity of ulcers compared to the diet of bromegrass. Although buffering capacity of saliva was not measured in this study, researchers suggested that the buffering effects of the alfalfa and/or concentrate were greater than grass hay.

    Another study indicated that relative to feeding coastal Bermudagrass hay, feeding alfalfa hay reduced the severity of ulcers in horses previously diagnosed with them and prevented ulcer development in nearly all of the horses fed alfalfa hay that did not have ulcers beforehand. In contrast, only a quarter of the horses without evidence of ulceration and fed coastal Bermudagrass hay did not develop ulceration.

    The buffering capacity of feed and forage plays an important role in the prevention of gastric ulcers. Alfalfa hay has been shown to be effective in reducing the severity of ulcers by providing superior buffering capacity compared to grass hay, thought to be due to the high calcium content in alfalfa. Although alfalfa may not be desirable for all performance horses, it is useful in many feeding situations.

    Beyond a change in forage, you may consider changing to a feed that contains less starch than traditional feeds. Many low-starch, high-fat, high-fiber feeds are available to horse owners, and these feeds have the ability to fuel exercise effectively, just like traditional feeds. The energy in these feeds is derived from fat (stabilized rice bran, vegetable oil) and fiber (beet pulp, soy hulls).  Palatability of these feeds is on par with traditional feeds.

    Finally, think about adding an effective anti-ulcer supplement, such as RiteTrac, a proprietary blend of ingredients designed to support total digestive tract health. Targeted to benefit the stomach and the hindgut of the horse, RiteTrac works in two distinct ways. First, with its combination of fast-acting antacids and coating agents, RiteTrac quickly neutralizes excess gastric acid, protecting the stomach lining and restoring the normal gastric environment. Second, RiteTrac contains EquiShure, a time-released hindgut buffer designed to act in the cecum and colon by maintaining optimal pH, thereby reducing the risk of hindgut acidosis. Australian horse owners should look for these products.

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