Ulcers in the Competition Horse

Working as an International Eventing Groom

Prior to working as a Territory Manager for Protexin Equine Premium, I worked as a travelling groom for two international event riders. In this time, I was lucky enough to groom at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, as well as the World Equestrian Games and European Championships. Rio was definitely a career highlight. Olympic Games are always special but there was something magical about travelling horses to a tropical city in Brazil!

The work of an event groom should never be underestimated; a lot more goes on behind the scenes than the smart plaits and quarter marks you see on trot up day! It’s a diverse role, there’s a lot of time management with several horses and three different disciplines to get through. Most importantly, it involves working with a wider team of veterinarians, physiotherapists, farriers and nutritionists to ensure your horse is in peak condition inside and out. When your horse and rider trot down the centre line, you want to know that you have done your bit and it’s up to the rider to produce a good test! 

Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS)

Good nutrition is vital for all competition horses, energy is a major factor but avoiding gastric complications is just as important. The powerhouse of the digestive system is the hind gut; it’s over 60% of its total volume and is where the majority of fibre digestion takes place. The vast size of the hind gut should be reflected by feeding a diet that is high in fibre, allowing ad-lib access to hay, haylage or grass.

The horse’s stomach is relatively small in comparison to the hind gut; it represents just 10% of the digestive system! In the wild, horses roam across grassland and graze constantly throughout the day, they are known as trickle feeders. The small stomach has evolved to digest food in this way and this should be reflected in the domesticated horse’s diet. Alongside plenty of forage, any concentrates should be fed in multiple small meals a day.

Ulcers are caused by a build-up of acids in the lower part of the stomach, the glandular mucosa. The stomach wall here is usually protected by a lining of mucus, but a reduction in its natural defences can lead to glandular ulcers. Or, if these acids reach the upper section of the stomach, they can breach its unprotected lining and leave the raw tissues beneath bathed in acid causing widespread ulceration. 

Watch our gastric ulcer animation

In the wild, gastric ulcers are less of a problem as horses naturally forage all day. The constant chewing action from eating rough forage stimulates saliva production which works as a natural antacid in the stomach. In addition to this, constant fibre intake forms a fibre matt on top of the stomach acid and forms a natural barrier between the acid and the unprotected regions, preventing squamous ulceration.

Competition horses live very different lives to their native cousins and factors such as stabling, travel, workload and intermittent feeding can contribute to gastric ulcer formation. The modern feeding habits have resulted in reduced fibre intake and therefore reduced saliva production. In addition to this, acid production is often increased as a result of the fermentation of starch present in many high energy feeds.

The risk of gastric ulceration in competition horses can be mitigated by feeding a diet high in fibre, low in starch and limiting stress as much as possible.

Further Information