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Equine Gastric Ulcers & Alfalfa as a Preventative Measure

Equine gastric ulcer is a common issue faced by most horse owners, breeders, and caretakers. By remaining un-diagnosed, ulcers can have multi-dimensional effects on the health and performance of horses. According to a study by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 58% of show horses were detected with gastric ulcers. According to studies, gastric ulcers are prevalent in race horses, performance and endurance horses. In this article, we will discuss all about equine gastric ulcers and alfalfa as a preventive measure.


Understanding the basics of equine digestive system helps us to better understand our equine partner needs. – Let’s have a brief overview of the equine digestive system first before going into the benefits of alfalfa hay.


Basics of equine digestive system

Equine digestive system can be divided into foregut and hindgut. Foregut is comprised of the mouth followed by the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine respectively. The small intestine opens into hindgut which is comprised of caecum, colon, and rectum. As hindgut fermenters, a major portion of horse feed is fermented in the caecum and colon with the help of different bacteria, protozoa, and yeast.


Understanding the structure of equine stomach is significant to grasp the origin of gastric ulcers. The inner surface of the horse’s stomach is of two types separated by a clear line called “Margo Plicatus”. The upper non-glandular whitish surface has thin protective lining. While remaining two-thirds of stomach has thick mucosal protective layer. Thin protective layer in upper stomach makes it vulnerable to acidic environment of the stomach.


Why horses are more prone to ulcers?

As horses are evolved for agility with little space to store feed in their bodies, naturally, they take multiple small meals throughout the day. Whether the horse has taken the meal or not, an equine stomach continuously keeps on secreting the digestive juices (HCL and Pepsin). To combat the acidic environment of stomach, horses need to graze or have forage at periodic intervals of the day. Otherwise, an ulcer develops in the GIT when the mucosal surface of digestive tract is compromised by the acidic environment of stomach. Erosion of the mucosal surface exposes inner layers of GIT to digesta and acids, which can cause severe pain and even blood loss.


Your horse may be suffering from ulcers!

Your equine fellow can’t come to you for telling about his ulcers! And due to unclear signs, they may not be differentially diagnosed from parasitism and colic.

These signs are associated with Ulcers

  • Low appetite and less feed intake

  • Poor body condition, rough hair coat, and weight-loss

  • Loss of energy and resistance below the saddle

  • Behavioral changes like cribbing, wind sucking, and flank irritation.

  • Low-grade anemia


Conventionally, gastric ulcers were focused during the diagnosis and treatment of equine digestive problems. The prevalence of gastric ulcers is greater than that of colonic ulcers. However, a study on 545 horses showed that 44% of non-performance horses and 65% of performance horses have colonic ulcers. It is experienced that colonic ulcers in horses remain undiagnosed due to vague signs, unavailability of diagnostic tools, and their limitations. So it’s advisable to have a differential diagnosis for gastric and colonic ulcers.

Gastric ulcers: As the upper one-third surface of the stomach has thin mucosal lining, most of the gastric ulcers developed in this area. Predisposing causes of gastric ulcers are grain rich feed, low grazing time and an empty stomach during training, performance, and travelling. Stomach has the most acidic contents towards its lower end and digesta in the upper portion has lower pH comparatively. However, during strenuous activity, digesta in the stomach is pushed towards the upper portion, and splashes of acidic content favor the occurrence of gastric ulcers. Wind sucking and wood chewing is a behavioral change of horses suffering from gastric ulcers.

Colonic ulcers: It is important to differentially diagnose colonic ulcers because medications for gastric ulcers don’t work for colonic ulcers. The most common causes of colonic ulcers are grain spill-over, right dorsal colitis, parasitism, and the use of anti-inflammatory medicines. Horses suffering from colonic ulcers feel flank irritation, intermittent diarrhea, and difficulty in folding and sitting. With the recommendations of your vet, decreasing the bulk load by using fresh alfalfa and the use of laxatives can help to cure colonic ulcers.


Prevention of equine gastric ulcers

Equine gastric ulcers can be prevented by considering the nutritional needs of horse. Thanks to the extensive research made in equine medicine.

Frank M. Andrews, a renowned equine medicine researcher, explained that the imbalance between the mucosal aggressive factors (Pepsin, hydrochloric acid) and mucosal protective factors (mucus and bicarbonates) is the cause of equine gastric ulcer syndrome. The major source of this imbalance is stress from training and long periods of restricted feeding particularly in performance horses.

The key is prevention, by managing the nutritional requirements and management of your horse’s exercise routine.

How does alfalfa help to prevent Gastric ulcers?

Alfalfa prevents the development of the ulcers directly by its buffering capacity and indirectly by stimulating more saliva production. To prevent and cure gastric ulcers, a variety of medicinal approaches are being used to decrease the effects of acidic secretions. The need of the hour is to go back to basics and understand that sufficient forage is the part and parcel of the equine diet. Changes in the diet of the horse have proven effects to cure gastric ulcers. Alfalfa hay can be used as an economical solution to this problem. Curious? Let’s dig into the details of alfalfa as a prevention tool for equine ulcers.


Buffering capacity of alfalfa

Alfalfa buffers the effect of acidic secretion in the horse stomach. Buffering capacity of alfalfa is due to its high calcium and protein content. Amino acids obtained from protein breakdown helps to increase the PH of the stomach because they are weak acids and hamper the effect of strong volatile acids.

An independent study by the Texas A&M University has proved the effectiveness of alfalfa hay in reducing gastric ulcers in the horse. The objective of the study was to find the anti-ulcer capabilities of alfalfa hay in comparison to grass hay. 21 quarter horse yearlings were used for the study and divided into two groups. One group was treated with Bermuda grass hay and the other with alfalfa hay along with a normal exercise regime. The outcome of this study showed that alfalfa hay has antiulcerogenic properties


Forage increases the salivation

Have you ever experienced the increase in salivary secretions, when we use a toothpick? In the same way, grazing and the use of forage increase the production of saliva in horses. During hay consumption or grazing, it takes longer as compared to intake concentrate feed. Excessive mastication increases the amount of saliva produced by a horse.

Research has shown that the hardness and particle size of feed has direct effects on the amount of saliva produced by an animal. Higher saliva production tends to increase the pH of the stomach due to its alkaline nature and can be helpful to prevent gastric ulcers.


Does alfalfa makes my horse hot?

Many people believe that alfalfa makes the horse hot. It may be the case not only with alfalfa but with every other feedstuff when given in excess. There is no scientific evidence to support that alfalfa can makes the horse hot or crazy. Alfalfa has a good nutritional profile and an ideal source of providing calories along with effective fiber. Recent researches have shown that alfalfa hay is more beneficial for horses than grass hays.


Take home message

Equine ulcers can be avoided by considering these points.

Ø Provide at least two to three smaller meals to your horse throughout the day. Keeping the amount and time of meals same is advisable.

Ø Little concentrate feed should be provided according to body requirements.

Ø All time availability of forage or hay to stabled horses. 1.5lb to 2lb of hay should be provided for 100lb weight of horse. So, for a 1200lb horse, 20lb of hay or forage should be provided.

Ø Avoid exercising and training horse with empty stomach. Hay feeding before exercise is recommended. It creates a mat of fiber on stomach surface and avoids acidic splashes of content during activity.


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