The best way to feed a horse to avoid gastric ulcers

  • Gastric ulcers can affect any horse or pony of any breed or any age because the horse’s stomach constantly secretes acid, so feeding a horse with gastric ulcers in the right way is key for their health and comfort. They need to chew regularly to help neutralise this acid – without frequent intakes of forage, the acidity increases and the horse is at a greater risk of developing ulcers.

    “Approximately 90% of racehorses and up to 60% of competition horses are thought to have gastric ulcers. Although diet is just one risk factor, appropriate nutritional management helps to reduce the risk and severity of gastric ulcers,” says Sarah Nelson, Spillers nutritionist.

    A horse with gastric ulcers should receive a high-fibre, high-forage diet which contains little or no whole cereal grains. Their total daily forage intake should be a minimum of 1.5% of their bodyweight. On average for a 500kg horse without access to grazing this equates to approximately 9kg of hay (11kg if soaked) or 10-12kg of haylage.

    “Horses are designed to eat little and often and therefore should receive ad lib forage; research has proven that there is a risk factor for the development of ulcers if there is absence of forage in a horse’s diet for over six hours,” explains Katie Williams, technical and product development manager at Dengie.

    “While this can be difficult to avoid overnight, try putting multiple haynets around your horse’s stable or if someone goes to the yard later in the evening than you, ask them to give your horse a haynet so the horse has the shortest possible time without forage.”

    Adding short chopped fibre, ideally containing alfalfa, to every meal can be hugely beneficial as the high protein and calcium content in alfalfa is thought to help buffer stomach acid.

    “It is also advisable to feed a handful of chaff or forage or give a horse a haynet 20-25 mins prior to exercising to help line the horse’s stomach and stop the acid from splashing around while the horse moves,” adds Katie.

    A horse’s diet should contain less than 1g of non-structural carbohydrate (starch and sugars) per kilogram bodyweight per meal and ideally less than 2g of starch per kilogram bodyweight per day. For a 500kg horse this is equivalent to less than 500g of NSC per meal and ideally less than 1kg of NSC per day.

    “Starch, such as found in concentrated cereal feeds, is strongly associated with an increased risk of gastric ulcers. Therefore, stick to the high-fibre diet, supplemented to balance the micronutrients. If additional energy is required then this is best fed through a high-oil diet, which is shown to be beneficial for the ulcer-prone — and don’t forget to balance with vitamin E,” says Kate Hore, head nutritionist at NAF.

    For those horses and ponies who only eat forage, one of the best feed balancers can be a valuable addition to their diet. Some balancers and feeds are designed specifically to be suitable for horses prone to gastric ulcers.

    “Balancers provide a concentrated source of vitamins, minerals and quality protein, but due to the low feeding rate, a negligible level of energy, starch and sugar,” says Sarah.

    Saliva provides a natural buffer to a horse’s stomach acid and horses only produce saliva when they chew so maximising forage intake is key.

    “The sooner we all feed our horses more naturally, the sooner we can make many equine health issues, including ulcers, a thing of the past. That means not only feeding the high forage diet, but also maximising turnout as much as possible, to encourage good gut motility, as the horse’s digestive system evolved to work to its best when grazing and gently moving around,” concludes Kate.

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