Katie Williams M.Sc. (Dist) R Nutr, Technical Manager at Dengie Horse Feeds.
Over the last decade, studies have increased our awareness and understanding of Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome but there is still much to learn. We know there are two distinct diseases which affect different areas of the stomach: Equine Squamous Gastric Disease (ESGD) and Equine Glandular Gastric Disease (EGGD). Whilst a recognised aetiology and recommended management regimes exist for ESGD, less is known about EGGD.
Symptoms of gastric ulcers in horses
Symptoms are not always very easy to distinguish from other issues or diseases but some common ones include weight loss, dull coat, biting when being girthed and intermittent colic. However, it is important to consider that good doers and those that look healthy on the outside can have ulcers too. It is also apparent that there is no link between the severity of ulcers and the symptoms – some horses are clearly very stoic and can have grade 4 ulcers with no obvious clinical signs.
There are some well established practices that are known to increase the risk of horses having ulcers:
- Feeding too little fibre – chewing fibre produces more than double the amount of saliva than chewing concentrates
- Feeding 1% of bodyweight as grain resulted in a marked increase in ulcers in non-exercised horses
- Feeding 2g/kg BW starch per day or 1g/kg BW per meal more than doubled the risk of a horse having ulcers. If you would like to work out how much starch your horse is receiving then why not try our Starch Intake Calculator | Dengie Horse Feeds
So if too little forage is a risk factor, how much forage should I feed?
Ad lib forage is the simple answer assuming the horse isn’t overweight. Horses will typically consume between 2 and 2.5% of bodyweight per day as forage when offered ad lib access. Ponies may consume more so it is important to watch for weight gain as a result.
For horses and ponies needing to lose weight we would suggest feeding 1.5% of their bodyweight in fibre daily as a minimum. For a 500kg horse this would be 7.5kg dry matter, or 8.8kg of hay as fed, assuming the hay is 85% dry matter. This quantity is likely to be less than the horse would consume if given free choice access and so should be split up into as many small, regular feeds as possible so that the horse is kept eating for as long as possible through the day and night. Using small-holed nets or double netting can also help the forage allowance to last longer.
Can straw be fed to horses with ulcers?
Back in 2009, a study that looked at the incidence of gastric ulceration in a population of horses found that those that were fed straw as the sole or predominant fibre source were more likely to have ulcers. The reasons given related to the structure of straw and the fact that straw contains low levels of calcium and protein. This makes sense given that it is alfalfa’s naturally high protein and calcium levels that are thought to make it a superior buffer.
However, the key here is that straw was used as the sole or predominant fibre source which is something we simply don’t tend to do in the UK. Straw is regularly fed to horses in chopped form and so is not fundamentally an issue. The current advice, even for ulcer prone horses, is that straw can be included typically up to 30% of the total daily ration. Using Dengie products that contain straw such as Hi-Fi Lite or Hi-Fi Molasses Free, at the recommended feeding rate will be well within these guidelines and are an appropriate choice of feed for good doers and ulcer prone horses.
Should my ulcer prone good doer have a bucket feed?
Whilst the large majority of any horse’s diet should be forage even good do-ers can benefit from a bucket feed for the following reasons:
To provide a balanced diet; UK pastures lack a number of key trace minerals including zinc, copper and selenium as well as vitamin E in conserved forage. Vitamins and minerals are important for many different functions such as energy breakdown and utilisation and as part of the body’s antioxidant defence system. Topping up these nutrients by adding a broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement or balancer to a low calorie chopped fibre feed to act as a carrier helps to ensure a balanced diet is supplied.
As a lower calorie alternative to hay; hay and haylage can easily supply more energy or calories than the good do-er requires and so the amount fed may need to be restricted. Alternatively, a proportion of the forage ration can be replaced with something even lower calorie such Dengie Hi-Fi Lite. Overall, this may mean the horse can have a larger amount to eat which increases chew time and fibre intake to help support digestive health.
As a pre-exercise feed to reduce the risk of acid splash; research has shown that feeding alfalfa as a fibre source is a superior buffer in the digestive tract. Feeding a double handful of a chopped alfalfa-based fibre feed in the 20-25 minutes before you ride is recommended to help prevent ‘acid splash’ in the non-glandular region of your horse’s stomach. The fibre ensures the stomach isn’t empty and suppresses the movement of the acidic contents when the horse moves.
What should I feed my good doer prone to ulcers?
Whilst Dengie Healthy Tummy, Alfa-A Oil or Performance Fibre have the BETA feed approval mark for equines prone to gastric ulcers, these feeds all supply 11.5MJ/kg or more digestible energy which makes them higher calorie feeds that are less suited to the good do-er. Whilst the overall calorie intake could be controlled by limiting the amount fed, it is more beneficial for your horse to have more of a lower calorie feed to provide more chew time. Dengie have other alternatives which would be better suited to good doers such as Healthy Hooves Molasses Free, Hi-Fi Molasses Free or Hi-Fi Lite.
Available from your local Carr’s Billington Country Store
Top Tips for Feeding the Good Doer Horse with Gastric Ulcers
- Make fibre the foundation of the diet, both long stem and short chop, topping up with a supplement or balancer to provide a balanced diet.
- Keep fibre intake as maximal as possible whilst managing bodyweight by using late cut hay and other lower calorie fibre sources such as Hi-Fi Lite, Hi-Fi Molasses Freeor Healthy Hooves Molasses Free.
- Feed regular forage feeds split into as many small meals as possible when your horse is not at grass leaving a larger quantity overnight.
- Feed a small alfalfa-based meal prior to exercising.
Available from your local Carr’s Billington Country Store
Can I use alfalfa for horses with ulcers?
The simple answer is yes you can. Studies back in the early 2000s (Nadeua et al, 2000; Lybbert et al, 2007) showed that alfalfa was more beneficial for horses with ulcers (ESGD) compared to grass forages, as the high levels of calcium and magnesium it contains act as natural buffers to acidity.
Why does alfalfa contain more calcium than grass forages?
Alfalfa has really deep roots – about 3 to 4 metres – and the calcium at this depth in the soil is more available for absorption. This means that alfalfa plants can take up more calcium than grass – chopped alfalfa contains between 30 and 50% more calcium than grass forages. Early studies suggest that omeprazole is reducing calcium absorption in the horse as is seen in humans and in Swanhall et al’s (2018) study, they recommend using bio-available calcium sources in the diet to help counteract this effect. Plant based sources of calcium such as alfalfa are much easier for the horse to absorb than inorganic sources such as limestone flour.
How much alfalfa should be fed?
Researchers suggest adding around 200grams, which is about half a Stubbs scoop, when cereals are fed to help counteract the increases in acidity generated by the starch. Our view is why use cereals at all? Alfalfa provides a lot of slow release energy (10MJ/KG DE) whilst being around 10 times lower in starch than a mix or cube with a comparable energy content. It’s only really elite performance horses where a case can be made for using some cereal based feed and even then it should be used in moderation alongside high quality forages to promote gastric health.
Why is alfalfa so low in starch?
Like other plants alfalfa makes sugar when photosynthesising but it stores any surplus as starch in its roots – the part that horses don’t eat! Grass plants tend to store sugar as fructan in leaves and the stem.
So why are some people concerned about feeding alfalfa?
Some people look at the percentage of protein in a pure alfalfa feed and are put off as they don’t consider how much is being fed and therefore the actual amount of protein the horse is consuming. For example, the Dengie Alfa-A range contain between 12 and 14% protein. 1 Stubbs scoop of Alfa-A Original (400g) supplies 48 grams of protein which is about 6-8% of a 500kgs horse’s daily maintenance needs. We recommend a max of 3kgs (7.5 scoops) per day which very few people get anywhere near feeding which provides about 1/3 of the protein a 500kgs horse in moderate to hard work requires.
There has also been a study published that has caused confusion. It explored the incidence of ulcers in foals and used the weaning process to induce ulcers. They then compared groups fed alfalfa chaff or alfalfa pellets or hay. Foals were fed 3kgs (7.5 Stubbs scoops) of alfalfa chaff (way more than is typically used or what we would recommend for foals), 2.7kgs of oats and 0.25kgs of soybean meal. It’s also important to note that the alfalfa chaff used was 40% lower in calcium than the alfalfa pellets used. Foals fed the alfalfa chaff had higher ulcer scores at the pylorus than those fed alfalfa pellets or hay but none showed any clinical signs. The same research group have recently published another study comparing grass and alfalfa hay in adult horses and the horse with ulcers at the start of the study no longer had ulcers having been fed the alfalfa hay in the study.
So what can we conclude?
There have been no negative effects in the squamous region of the stomach in horses of any age from feeding alfalfa
The only group where an effect with alfalfa chaff has been seen is weaned foals – there were no issues associated with feeding alfalfa pellets which would still provide some natural buffering from the calcium they contain
Alfalfa chaff or chop is generally considered beneficial for adult horses at risk of or prone to EGUS
The BETA approval mark for horses and ponies prone to Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome was set up back in 2014 with the aim of providing the horse owner with an independent guide to the products suitable for feeding to horses and ponies at risk of EGUS. Dengie have three products approved which are Alfa-A Oil, Performance Fibre and Healthy Tummy. They all include alfalfa and high levels of oil so can be used to promote weight gain and improved condition.
Top Tips for Feeding the Poor Doer with ulcers
- Feed ad lib forage and source as good a quality as possible to reduce reliance on the bucket feed
- A wrapped forage with a high dry matter of 70% or above is unlikely to have fermented and so is no more acidic than hay. It is likely to have been harvested earlier and so may be more digestible and is often more palatable which can be useful for those prone to ulcers.
- Use highly digestible fibre sources in the bucket – sugar beet and alfalfa such as in Dengie Alfa-Beet are great for promoting weight gain without supplying additional starch
- Use high oil feeds such as Dengie Alfa-A Oil to supply additional slow release energy without extra starch
For more information on feeding horses prone to gastric ulcers or for help and advice on all aspects of feeding call the Dengie Feedline: 01621 841188 or visit the website and complete our Feed Advice Form.
Lybbert, T. et al (2007), Proceedings of Annual Convention of the AAEP, Orlando, Florida, 2007.
Nadeau, J. et al (2000) Evaluation of diet as a cause of gastric ulcers in horses. American Journal of Veterinary Research. Jul;61(7):784-90.
Swanhall et al (2018) Mineral and Vitamin Supplementation Including Marine Derived Calcium Increases Bone Density in Thoroughbreds. Proceedings of the Australasian Equine Science Symposium