Horse owners put a great deal of effort into the external care of their equine companions. Everyday hours are spent maintaining our horses' glossy coats and silky manes and tails. After all, when you look good you feel good and a healthy outward appearance usually indicates overall good health. But beneath healthy looks your horse may be suffering internally from painful, bleeding stomach ulcers.
Equine gastric ulcers are not often noticed until serious complications occur and for this reason it has not been recognized how common this disorder is. A recent study done by the Kentucky Equine Research Center revealed that 70-90% of all horses that were seemingly healthy are afflicted with gastric ulcers but showed no apparent signs of problems. From three-month-old foals to aged horses, ulcers have been found to be more common in the horse than previously thought. Unnoticed gastric ulcers may be the cause for early foal deaths, frequent colic and fatal cases of bloat in older horses. This causes reason for concern among owners whose horses may be at risk of having this serious ailment.
Several theories on the cause of equine gastric ulcers have been formed by orthodox veterinarians but these leave something to be desired. Excess stomach acid, incorrect stomach pH and inadequate food intake do not seem to be complete explanations. The many unnatural practises inflicted upon the hobby and performance horse alike can all be found responsible for causing or contributing to gastric ulcers. A diet high in grain, inadequate free exercise, and excessive physical and mental stress are common causes of ulcers. Commonly used drugs such as 'bute' and 'lasix' have been found to irritate the stomach lining and disintegrate the mucous coating causing ulcers. This is likewise with chemical worming concoctions. Vaccines can cause a reaction in horses in the form of ulcers and this is quite common.
Due to the fact that gastric ulcers cannot be seen and do not exhibit distinctive symptoms the horse owner is not often aware of the disorder. In many cases only serious complications and/or sudden death reveal stomach ulceration. Clearly it is vital to diagnose and treat gastric ulcers as soon as possible and, most of all, prevent their occurrence.
It can be hard to diagnose gastric ulcers because checking for this stomach disorder is not part of routine examinations and owners are usually not aware of the signs. Symptoms of stomach ulcers are sometimes very vague but an overview of your horse's lifestyle, diet and behavior can indicate the early signs.
Some of the symptoms of gastric ulcers are: lack of energy or a decline in performance, occasional colic, poor appetite, sporadic diarrhea, general lack of optimum health, and irritability after meals. Failure for a foal to thrive or for an animal to gain weight are other common indicators. These symptoms can point to other disorders but if you notice any of them in your horse, the possibility of gastric ulcers should be investigated. Consider that if your horse eats a high grain diet, has regular vaccines, is used as a performance horse, is temperamentally sensitive or is on medications such as 'bute' or 'lasix' the likelihood of ulcers is even higher. Foals born to mares that may have gastric ulcers are also at higher risk.
Diagnosis of gastric ulcers is accomplished by a stomach examination with a gastric endoscope inserted through the nostril while the equine is mildly sedated. This allows visual exploration of the stomach lining and is quite harmless to the horse. A horse with gastric ulcers will have red, bleeding lesions in the stomach wall that are clearly seen with the endoscope; misdiagnosis of these lesions is impossible. Treatment should start immediately upon diagnosis.
Conventional treatments of equine gastric ulcers are very superficial and do not remove the root cause. Orthodox veterinarians prescribe complete stall rest, frequent meals and a dose of 'Tums' or an equine antacid. This may be followed by temporary recovery from the ulcers but leads to poor digestion due to a lack of stomach acid and general poor health. Natural treatments offer full and permanent recovery, generally improved health and a better quality of life for your horse.
Treatment should begin with a complete change in your horse's daily care and routines. All unnatural practises must be abandoned to remove the cause of the ulcers.
*Discontinue the use of medications; this may also mean finding natural alternatives for them. Do not use chemical worming products or have your horse vaccinated.
*Remove the horse from vigorous exercise routines or training and allow free pasture exercise with access to shelter. Confining your horse to a stall, except for administering treatments, is not conducive to health.
*Feed a natural diet. This consists of mainly hay, fresh grass and a small amount of grain. Feed grass hays or grass/alfalfa mixture. Barley, wheat bran and oats are good but should only be fed as a supplement to hay and grass. A natural pelleted feed free of preservatives and additives may be used as a supplement as well. Hay and grass should be available at all times but grain or prepared feeds should be offered at established meal times and in small quantities.
*It should be noted that the attitude you have toward your horse contributes to the detriment or benefit of his health. Equines thrive on a close relationship with people and other horses. A gentle hand and an attitude of asking for trust and obedience rather than demanding it from the animal will go a long way in your horse's recovery. This is especially important for horses with gastric ulcers because mental stress contributes to the disorder.
In addition to natural care, treatments for gastric ulcers consist of herbal remedies and dietary supplements. Herbs are chosen to treat the ulcers directly and also to strengthen the immune system, which is weakened during any illness or injury.
Aloe vera is an excellent herb for aiding the stomach in repairing the mucous coating and healing the ulcers. It is also mildly cleansing to the entire digestive tract, which is beneficial for the horse's body. Slippery elm bark is a soothing anti-inflammatory herb that reduces irritation of the stomach lining and promotes healing. It is very soothing to the horse as it reduces the discomfort that accompanies gastric ulcers and is very nourishing. Slippery elm is a wonderful remedy for foals and mature horses alike. Aloe vera and slippery elm have been used very successfully when combined and given in conjunction with a complete treatment. Mix 2 ounces of aloe vera juice with 2 tsp. of slippery elm bark powder and administer with a syringe three times daily. This mixture should be given before your horse eats, if possible.
There are many other herbs that are useful for equine gastric ulcers and are very good when combined with the mixture above. Garlic does wonders for improving stomach function and helping ulcers heal. Red raspberry leaves are as soothing and healing as slippery elm in the treatment of this disorder. Chamomile, nettle, burdock, licorice root and dandelion are also very good for treating ulcers. All of these herbs can be used as an infusion (tea) and given in two-ounce doses three times daily. Echinacea should be given to strengthen the immune system and improve general health. Use the herb as an infusion (tea) or as a tincture three times a day for three weeks and then discontinue for a week before administering it again. These herbs are safe to use and are readily available to the horse owner. Many horses find them quite tasty and are not averse to taking them.
Dietary supplements should be added to the diet when treating gastric ulcers as they provide the elements lacking in horses with this ailment. Use a high quality general dietary supplement that provides all of the essential vitamins, minerals and trace elements. Also feed bee pollen as an amino acid supplement; this provides all 21 amino acids. Acidophilus is essential when treating gastric ulcers as it reestablishes the healthy bacteria in the digestive tract. Many foods are useful in the treatment of gastric ulcers. Carrots, beets and apples are usually fed as treats but horses benefit greatly when they eat them regularly. They have soothing and healing properties that help with ulcers and are highly nutritious too.
Natural treatments for gastric ulcers are very effective and do not take long to produce results. Horses can fully recover within three to six months from beginning treatment at which time you can discontinue treatment. However, you cannot revert to the unnatural practises that caused ulcers in the first place. It will take time for you and your horse to adjust to a routine of natural care but the outcome will be a much healthier animal.
The shocking truth that 70-90% of all horses have gastric ulcers should prompt horse owners to begin preventing this disorder even if their horses seem healthy. You should especially be concerned if your horse has high risk factors for ulcers. Although gastric ulcers are a very serious ailment prevention does not have to be a chore but rather a part of everyday natural care.
Remember, a natural diet is the first part of preventing gastric ulcers. Use hay and grass as the staple and supplement with a small amount of grain if necessary. Provide a high quality dietary supplement and feed acidophilus frequently. Use fresh fruits and vegetables as a part of your horse's daily diet. Give your horse frequent rest and relaxation in the form of free pasture exercise, especially for the performance equine. A healthy relationship with your horse is also essential as this helps reduce mental stress, which can be as detrimental as physical overexertion. Chemical substances are one of the leading causes of equine gastric ulcers. Avoid all drugs but particularly 'bute' and similar types. The use of chemical worming formulas and vaccines should also be eliminated. It is also helpful to use an herbal tonic at least twice a year to give the immune system a boost and cleanse the entire body. This is beneficial to the health of your horse and will thus help prevent gastric ulcers.
Medical research has shown that gastric ulcers are far more common in horses than once thought and the disorder should be a major concern for owners. The drugs and conventional methods of care that are so highly regarded have finally caught up to us and our horses are suffering because of it. Obviously, the treatment of gastric ulcers requires owners to abandon these methods and use a natural approach for the benefit of their horses. Because of the prevalence of gastric ulcers it is important to use prevention against them and this also means practicing natural horse care. So the next time you spend hours fussing over the healthy outward appearance of your horse, consider the health issues that may not be visible from the outside. True health begins from the inside out with natural care to prevent gastric ulcers and the many other ailments afflicting equines.
©Erica Stoton 2001
This is an informational article only and is not intended to replace veterinary or professional care.