Stomach Ulcers in Thoroughbreds – “Prevention is better than Cure”

By Hadden Frost, Keyflow Technical Sales Manager and experienced and respected horseman.


Stomach Ulcers in Thoroughbreds – “Prevention is the best cure”

Thoroughbreds are incredible creatures – they have been trained and bred over hundreds of years to become finely tuned athletes, designed for performance, particularly in racing.

It’s this athleticism and trainability which also makes ex-racehorses popular for re-training after their race days are over. It is however also because of this that, unlike some other breeds, they require extra attention in many areas.

Sport horses such as warmbloods often have traditional – and yes, hardier – bloodlines in their ancestry. Appreciating this, we can understand why that alongside kind and sympathetic training, a good diet and nutritional management is invaluable for a healthy and happy thoroughbred.

When focusing on ex-racehorses in particular and the nutritional issues they often suffer from, we inevitably think of stomach ulcers. Unfortunately they are prolific in racing. If a horse, as with a human, is under stress they are more susceptible to ulcers and as we know thoroughbreds tend to have a natural disposition to nerves and stress let alone when in a racing environment. This doesn’t mean to say that they aren’t treatable or preventable. There are many well known medications on the market to treat ulcers, so I don’t want to go into treatment. However, I’m an advocate of clichés and none more so than “prevention is the best cure” – and if you do have a horse who has been treated for ulcers, of course you will want to take measures to help ensure he doesn’t fall victim to them again.

The now-retired 4-star TB eventer Keyflow (the horse) raced in New Zealand in his younger days.

For a healthy digestive system we need to know some basic biomechanics of the horse. Firstly, the entire digestive system is designed for grazing. The average horse is naturally designed to graze ‘little and often’ for 16-20hrs a day with small amounts of fiberous forage moving through his digestive system continually, which is why horses’ stomachs are incredibly small for their body size. In fact the average thoroughbreds stomach only has a capacity of 2kg – that’s the size of a rugby ball.

Food isn’t meant to stay in the stomach for long (on average, around 45 minutes), but what the stomach does need is a constant supply of food to absorb the strong acidic fluids produced within it – these acids are there to ‘kickstart’ the digestion process by breaking down food, beyond the mastication that has occurred in the mouth.

When the stomach is empty of food, the stomach acid, which is continuously being produced, is able to “splash” around the sides of the stomach – irritating the thinner, upper stomach lining and contributing to ulcers.

Tip: Horses who go for extended periods of time without fibre (grass, hay, other forage) are more likely to suffer from ulcers.

If you think of any Thoroughbreds you know who are often stabled with restricted or no grazing at all, they may often be known to leave their feed therefore work on an empty stomach. It starts to make sense as to why they suffer so prolifically from stomach ulcers.

Now that we understand the root cause of ulcers, how can we prevent them?

Science would tell us to neutralise the stomach acid by adding a carbonate to the diet. Luckily, nature is there to help us out on this one. When horses chew – and only when they chew – they create saliva – a strong carbonate which effectively neutralises (or buffers) the acid in the stomach.

A further point to add is that saliva production is actually increased when horses are chewing with their heads down.

Tip: Increasing the amount of time a horse spends chewing increases the amount of saliva he produces – which helps to neutralise the acid in his stomach. Feeding their feed and hay at ground level simulates eating grass, and helps to produce even more saliva.


Sir Mark Todd and NZB Ocean winning the Retraining of Racehorse Class as Barbury Castle, 2015 COPYRIGHT: LIBBY LAW PHOTOGRAPHY

Remember that unless its working on breaking down food matter, there is a constant pool of acidic fluids on the floor of the stomach, so try not to exercise your horse on an empty stomach. I know we were taught the opposite of this, but remember that horses in the wild are designed to be able to run from predators at a moments notice – so the happy medium which still helps to prevent stomach fluids “splashing” around your horse’s stomach wall is to feed a generous handful of chaff (or an alternative) 10-15 minutes before working your horse if he would otherwise be working on an empty stomach. This will help to soak up and cap the fluids in the stomach to prevent the splashing effect.

If it is practical and possible for you to do so, split your horse’s daily feed up into 2 or ideally 3 feeds per day. Feeding ‘little and often’ helps to reduce damage from surplus stomach fluids, and will also improve your horses digestive efficiency so he will gain more nutritionally from what you feed him.

Tip: Feed little and often to help regulate stomach acid levels, reduce ‘overloading the stomach’ and to improve digestive efficiency.

Making a few small changes to the way in which you manage your horses daily feeding regime can benefit him in many more ways than just preventing ulcers. It goes without saying that a healthier digestive system will digest food more efficiently. This can lead to a horse improving in condition, and temperament, seemingly overnight.  I’ve also known horses in and out of training who have reduced stable vices such as wind sucking or weaving due to sympathetic (closer to nature) feeding regimes.

Keyflow feeds are all designed and formulated to maintain and further support a healthy digestive system. Many products include pre- and pro-biotics for increased gut health, as well as advanced cooking processes which increase the digestibility of the feeds, meaning you can feed less concentrate alongside more fibre – a formula which is beneficial for many Thoroughbreds.

We are available at any time for general feeding advice, diet checks or nutritional support.

01672 519000

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