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At this time of year there are many reasons why horses can be more prone to gastric ulcers. As time in the field often decreases and horses spend more time in the stable, the ‘little and often’ trickle feeding that is needed for gastrointestinal health can become compromised. Horses left in confinement overnight can finish their forage provision in a few hours, leaving them without food for several more. As the horse’s stomach continually produces acid, when no forage is present, less saliva is produced to buffer the acid and the acid will attack the stomach lining instead. If there is inadequate grass in the field and the horse isn’t fed additional forage outside, this too can contribute to this increasingly common problem, as can cereal feeds.
Sadly, Equine Gastric Ulceration Syndrome (EGUS) often begins at a very young age. Sudden weaning is a huge contributory factor and a recent study found the prevalence of gastric lesions increase to an unbelievable 98% of foals within two weeks of weaning. EGUS can affect any type of horse, with other studies showing 93% of racehorses, 65% of performance horses and 54% of leisure horses to be affected.
Signs of EGUS include changes in behaviour, poor performance, difficulties when riding, refusing to jump, weight loss, colic, fatigue, grumpiness, teeth grinding, crib biting, loose droppings, dislike of the girth being done up and being cold backed. Some horses very obviously exhibit there is a problem, whilst others only show one or two mild symptoms, however, some horses with ulceration don’t demonstrate these symptoms at all. A full veterinary examination is needed, (including a video endoscopy) to evaluate the location and the extent of the internal damage.
Medication is often required to aid recovery and good management is vital to help treat and prevent the condition. A low starch, high fibre diet, trickle feeding, less stabling, reducing stress and not exercising the horse with an empty stomach are all positive management strategies. Fibre in the stomach prior to exercise helps to prevent the acid splash. Unfortunately, EGUS is often a man made problem, so as with many conditions, prevention is better than cure. It can be fatal, particularly for foals, and at the least causes chronic discomfort for horses of any age.
If you suspect that your horse may have EGUS, it is important to consult a specialist equine vet who can assist you with helping your horse to recover. Without appropriate treatment and management, the horse will continue to suffer and can exhibit dangerous behaviour due to the discomfort. However, if managed appropriately, horse’s can recover and consequently they become healthier and happier partners.