The 411 on Ulcers and Barrel Horses

What are ulcers, why do barrel horses struggle with them and what are some popular ways to manage the nasty buggers? Find out here.
a barrel racer
BRM file photo

The term “ulcers,” is thrown around a lot in the sport of barrel racing, but what even are they, what do they mean for barrel horses and how can they be managed?

There are statistics floating around the internet that say upwards of 60%—and even 90%—of competition horses have some form of ulcers in their digestive tracts. 

The pain can be compared to intense acid reflux in people. Imagine trying to go for a run, do everyday tasks and behave normally with the uncomfortable, aching, bloating and burning sensations that come with acid reflux. 

Now imagine being a barrel horse—one who’s pointed towards high pressure situations and intense workouts, coupled with long hours on the trailer and spending time in a stall or tied out when on the road. Sounds like a recipe for some behavioral problems. So, what exactly are ulcers?

What are ulcers?

Although the term “ulcer,” can be used as a blanket term for a variety of front and hindgut disturbances, gastric or stomach ulcers are sores caused when the body overproduces gastric acid in the stomach—the same acid that is essential for digestion. Horses of any age can be affected, but younger horses in high-stress situations such as training or competition are more prone to them. 

UC Davis’ Veterinary Medicine reported that when horses exercise, the acid in the stomach splashes and irritates the more sensitive, upper portion of the stomach.

They also reported that horse’s stomachs are relatively small compared to their size. This fact goes hand in hand with the principle that horses are meant to eat small meals all day, much like they would if they were grazing on a grassland. 

Horse’s stomachs are constantly releasing a steady amount of acid to digest the fibrous grass and hay they consume. When horses are stalled and only fed a few times a day, they often go for long periods of time with no food, creating an opportunity for the acid to build up and start the ulcerative process.  

Other factors that increase a horse’s chance of ulcers are diets high in grain and consistent overuse of anti-inflammatories such as bute and banamine. These things decrease the protective layer of mucus on the stomach wall, opening the door for ulcers to form. 

Did you know?

Horse’s stomachs produce acid 24 hours a day, which can add up to nine gallons of acid per day. 

How do ulcers form?

According to the team at SmartPak,

The word “gastric” means “of or pertaining to the stomach,” so, gastric health focuses entirely on one organ —the stomach. Your horse’s stomach is covered with two types of linings:

  1. Glandular mucosa – contains glands that constantly produce acid to aid in digestion and covers the bottom 2/3 of the stomach. This region produces mucus and bicarbonate to help protect the stomach from acid exposure. The medical term for ulceration of the glandular mucosa is Equine Glandular Gastric Disease (EGGD).
  2. Non-glandular (squamous) mucosa – covers the top 1/3 of the stomach. This area is where stomach contents are mixed, usually with buffering from food and saliva so it doesn’t have as much natural protection from acid as the glandular mucosa. The tissue edge that separates the squamous from glandular mucosa is called the margo plicatus. The medical term for ulceration of the squamous mucosa is Equine Squamous Gastric Disease (ESGD).
  3. The longer your horse’s stomach is empty, the more at risk he is for developing squamous gastric ulcers because the acid in his stomach isn’t being buffered by forage and saliva [2]. Excess acid can damage the unprotected squamous mucosa and erode through the tissue, creating painful ulcers.

What are signs of ulcers?

Some horses are easy to read. Others, not so much. Some of the signs of ulcers are as follows:

  •         Decreased performance
  •         Decreased appetite
  •         Cinchy when saddling
  •         Dull behavior
  •         Weight loss
  •         Increased irritability 
  •         Mild colic symptoms 

Risk factors that could encourage ulcers to form

  • Stress (caused by training, competition, shipping, injury, changes in herd, etc.)
  • Infrequent feeding or long intervals between feedings
  • High grain intake (high starch levels, low fiber levels)
  • Limited access to hay/pasture
  • Frequent intense training and competition
  • Reduced access to water
  • Lack of free-choice contact with other horses
  • Shipping
  • What is playing on the barn radio (music reduces occurrence of ulcers, talk radio does not!) [2,4,5]

Five ways to manage ulcers

  1. Use medicine. Omeprazol-based medications (omeprazole is also the main ingredient in most human heartburn medications) that decrease the amount of acid the stomach produces, allowing the stomach to heal, are trusted by many for ulcer maintenance. Treatments should be administered by veterinary professionals and often take anywhere from 30 to 90 days to reach their full effect. 
  • Supplement the gut. Products like SmartPak’s SmartGut Ultra Pellets contain ingredients such as aloe vera, calcium and slippery elm to soothe irritated stomachs, promote a healthy stomach pH and heal damaged tissues. 
  • Turn horses out as much as possible. If grazing isn’t available, invest in a sturdy, small hole haynet to let horses eat their hay slowly for longer periods of time, like they were designed.
  • Reduce stress where possible. Changes like adding a hauling buddy, setting a routine, adding calming supplements to their diet and keeping hay in front of them reduces time they have to stand around and stress. 
  • Alfalfa is better than grain for ulcers. While grain serves its purposes, the non-structured carbohydrates are digested quickly and turned into sugars in the body. Alfalfa has more fiber to it, plus it contains more protein and calcium which act as natural acid buffers. Think of grain as a doughnut vs alfalfa as a slice of whole-grain bread. One is going to keep horses fuller longer with more sustained energy and less acidic flare-ups. 

For more information and tips on ulcers, check out SmartPak’s informational guide.