Ulcers seem to be more common now than they were, say, 15 years ago, but I would wager that we just didn't know what we were dealing with then. Ulcers are erosions of the stomach lining and they are usually painful.
Signs of ulcers can include reduced/ poor appetite, weight loss, dull skin and hair coat, attitude/behavior changes (especially when saddled), colic, reluctance to work, and impaired performance.
If you can see some of these signs in your horse, it may be wise to get a diagnosis. There are a couple of good ways to do that. First, you can have your vet run a gastroscopy (AKA "scope") down the horse's throat and to the stomach to literally see if there are ulcers in the stomach. It is possible to have ulcers in the hindgut though and those will not be visible with the "scope."
Another way to diagnose ulcers is with acupressure. This may be something that your vet can do or your CESMT (like me) or another natural health provider could be capable as well. You can check this link to get an idea of what this diagnosis technique involves.
Once you have determined that your horse is suffering from ulcers, or at risk for developing them, you have some changes to make. Ulcers have been determined to be caused by high-stress levels, seriously restricted grazing/ pasture time, and diets high in carbs.
First of all, it isn't always possible to completely eliminate our horse's stress- especially if they are highly competitive athletes that travel frequently. One thing you can do that will benefit your ulcer prone horse is to make sure they get plenty of turn out time. Horses are NOT meant to be stuck in a stall for hours at a time. They were built to be grazing freely and moving constantly throughout the day. Wild horses usually only rest for short periods in between grazing. Not only does the consistent grazing keep their digestive system moving (keeping natural buffers for the stomach lining healthy and strong), but it also plays a role in their circulation. It may not always be possible to provide extended turn out time even though it is ideal. If that is the case, the best thing you can do for your horse is to make sure that they don't go long without forage.
In addition to pasture time, changing how and what you feed can also help reduce your horses' stress level and improve their stomach health. The one thing that always seems to surprise people is to NOT feed your horses on a strict schedule.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but when your horses are used to being fed at the EXACT same time EVERY day, they experience extreme stress if you are late. In fact, you may have already noticed your horses standing at their gates and calling out to you and pawing the ground as they catch sight of you coming out to feed. Though it can seem cute to have them calling out to you, it is a stress response. If you are more flexible in your feed times you will find that your horses are still out in the field when you come out to feed and while some may run to their feeders, you will find others will calmly and casually make their way in. This also helps when there is something that prevents you from feeding "on time." None of your horses' will be panicking that you aren't there to feed them- they will not think twice if you are an hour later than usual.
One of the biggest contributors to ulcers is poor quality, high carb foods. Concentrates or grains are generally high carb and your horse's digestive system was not made to process them in high quantities. Again, if the horse is an athlete or a "work" horse, it may not seem possible to completely eliminate grains from your horses' diet. There are foods that you can incorporate to nurture the stomach and also, replace some of the grains your horse is consuming. First, alfalfa hay provides natural buffers for the stomach lining. Remember to avoid long periods without forage- going more than 6 hours in between meals has been shown to increase the prevalence of ulcers. Second, you can feed high-fat foods (think stabilized rice bran, raw pumpkin seeds, and flaxseed oil) to replace the carbs for energy and also protect the stomach lining. You can also feed raw cabbage and aloe vera juice to support a healthy digestive system in your horses. Third, make sure your horse ALWAYS has access to clean, fresh water (easy enough 😉).
Finally, if you use straw as bedding, you may need to reconsider- if your horse eats a sizable about of straw, they are adding to the formation of ulcers.
To recap- give your horse as much pasture time as possible. Make sure they always have water. Don't let them go long without forage- the more quality forage they get the less grain they will need. Supplement when necessary and add some flexibility to your feeding schedule.
Keep your vet in the loop as you treat your horse for ulcers- you may need help or more detailed guidance depending on the severity of the ulcers and the goal is to have happy, healthy horses- two heads are better than one 😀
I've worked with and studied horses for the majority of my life. I have seen my fair share of injuries and lameness. I've had horses that were trained and some that we broke to ride ourselves.
Through this, there were horses that didn't heal as fast or as thoroughly as I'd hoped. There were also horses that had chronic behavioral issues and/ or were difficult to train. At that time, I believed that was the end of the road with those horses- they had reached their highest potential and it wasn't enough for my ambitions.
Sometime in 2017, I came across a Facebook post that showed before and after massage photos and told the story of a horse that had been struggling to pick up his left lead and was constantly knocking poles in the show jumping ring. After several massages, there were no more pole knocks or problems picking up canter leads. That had my attention. I followed the page that made that post for a little over a year before I finally took the plunge and signed up for the equine massage certification program through Midwest Natural Healing for Animals.
Watching/ following that Facebook page inspired me. I wanted to be able to just look at a horse and KNOW what problems they may be dealing with and how to fix the root CAUSE. I can confidently say that I have learned all of that and more.
I find joy in the relief and release that I provide to horses from all disciplines- I find that helping the horse physically creates a better situation for everyone. Obviously, releasing tension in a horse will lead to relaxation, and relaxation can open the horse up to a deeper connection to the handler. This can also lead to advancement in training and higher performance.