Horses evolved from small forest dwellers into grazers on the open plains and savannas. Biologically, they are adapted to eating 20 hours a day as they move through their environment. They eat, they move, they eat, they move. Wild horses in North America can cover 10-12 miles a day moving through the grasslands.
When horses sense danger, the brain signals the adrenal glands and the GI tract. Adrenalin is produced, cortisol rises, blood is moved to the limbs and away from the gut, and stomach acid increases. In the flight response, the horses run from the predator. They may run a quarter of a mile or more. Once the danger has receded, they go back to grazing, while chemical reactions in the brain lower adrenalin and produce more serotonin, the adrenal glands reduce cortisol, and the GI tract returns to the job of digesting food.
As the horses return to grazing, the saliva produced is a buffer to the gastric acid in the stomach. The steady supply of forage and saliva protects the lining of the stomach from the acids.
Horses in work and training
When we ride our horses at trot or canter, stomach acids can be pushed up into the sensitive upper, non-glandular portion of the stomach causing irritation and pain. While this can result in a full-blown ulcer, in many horses it causes an increased sensitivity to the burn of acid on the delicate stomach lining without causing severe ulceration.
Studies have shown that the acidity of gastric juice also increases during exercise. When the horse is standing or walking, the acidity remains in the pH range of 5.0 – 6.0, but at trot and canter the acidity can increase to 1.0 (lower numbers are more acidic).
Keep in mind that wild horses will trot and canter and then immediately go back to grazing. Since they are eating most of the time, there is food and saliva to buffer the increase in acid production, helping to maintain a normal pH of the stomach acids.
There is some conjecture that the restriction of the girth can also affect the highly acidic gastric juice in the lower portion of the stomach, by pushing that gastric juice up into the upper, unprotected portion and sensitive esophageal areas. We might consider this the equine version of acid reflux.
Common signs of ulcer sensitivity
Some horses can be quite overt about their ulcer sensitivities. Girthiness, pinning their ears or kicking when being saddled, sensitivity to being groomed, resistance under saddle, and refusing to go forward can all be signs of an ulcer, or of sensitivity to the discomfort of gastric juices splashing the upper portion of the stomach.
Supporting the biological nature of the horse
Because horses are biologically designed to move and eat, how can we support their health and well-being within the confines we maintain them in? By remembering a few key points and following a few tips:
- Horses need to eat hay or grass 20 hours a day.
- Give your horse some alfalfa pellets before you ride, even just a handful or two when you are tacking up. Alfalfa pellets are high in calcium, which will help with buffering of the stomach acids, and maintaining a normal pH. Be careful with treats like sugar cubes and treats with molasses, as these sugars are more acidic to the gut.
- Give your horse plenty of breaks at the walk. Remember, walking does not increase stomach acid production.
- Some horses spend a lot of time in stalls or in small paddocks that restrict movement. Horses that are maintained like this need to be hand-walked as well as ridden. In Europe, horse walkers are very popular, providing the horse with more exercise beyond just being under saddle. Treadmills are popular in some barns in the US to help with fitness, but more importantly to increase movement and circulation.
A supplement specific for ulcer sensitivity
BioStar’s Tum-Ease was formulated for my own horse, who was the poster boy for equine ulcer sensitivity. I needed something to coat the stomach and protect it from the burn, and I needed to provide mucosal support.
Tum-Ease provides a micro-crystalized aloe that works similarly to the drug sucralfate. This aloe is so highly concentrated that 1 teaspoon is equal to 2 ounces of aloe gel. It is a very expensive ingredient at $200 per pound, but its medicinal qualities are well worth it.
Tum-Ease provides the amino acid glutamine, which the body uses to heal intestinal mucosa. We use dehydrated cabbage, as it is one of the richest food sources of glutamine.
The organic yellow lentils in Tum-Ease are part of the legume family like alfalfa and provide extra calcium for stomach acid buffering. Yellow lentils have a history of use in Ayurvedic medicine because of their soothing effects on the GI tract.
Tum-Ease is in the form of a cookie, so it is easy to feed. Give 2 bars as you tack up, and 2 bars after riding. Your horse will thank you!