Ulcers can affect any age, breed, sex or discipline of horse. Horses ranging from race horses to everyday pasture pets have been found to have varying stages of ulcers. Horses also have varying degrees of clinical signs.
Horses have evolved as grazers, because of this their stomach is always producing stomach acid even when there is no food being ingested. When the horses are put on scheduled meals their stomachs may become irritated from excess acid. Forages like hay decrease the acidity of the stomach, while grains increase the acidity. It is thought that horses may experience gastritis, similar to heartburn in humans, because of the acid irritation to the stomach. Each horse will respond to ulcers and or gastritis in different ways.
The incidence of gastric ulcers varies from about 37% in non-competition horses, to 60% in sports horses, to over 90% in young Thoroughbred race horses in training. They are also commonly found in sick foals, where the stress of illness acts to increase acid secretion. Clinical signs of gastric ulceration include poor appetite or a failure to eat grain, low grade colic, poor performance, loss of body condition and a dull coat. Clinical signs can help suggest the presence of gastric ulcers but currently the only definitive means of diagnosis is by endoscopic examination (gastroscopy), of the esophagus, stomach and the proximal section of the small intestine.
We can treat ulcers and we can manage their occurrence through medication. The most effective drug that is available is omeprazole (Gastrogard®). This drug stops acid production in the stomach which allows the ulcers time to heal.