Gastric ulcers are a common condition and potentially dangerous if left undiagnosed and untreated. At the same time, they’re often a catch-all diagnosis when you’re consulting Drs. Google and Facebook. Learn more (and have a laugh!) here.
The internet is an awesome place, an unlimited resource for anything and everything. You can Google how long it takes to boil the perfect egg or teach yourself to crochet via YouTube. Pinterest gives you an endless amount of rainy day crafts and Facebook… well, Facebook gives you countless equestrian watering holes that can sometimes make or break your day.
Generally, I follow these pages but avoid posting to them like the plague. I am of the belief that “opinions are like”… well, maybe you can catch my drift there: EVERYONE has a differing opinion, and when it comes to horses those varying opinions can sometimes go very much in your favor or VERY VERY far south.
After a challenging handful of rides with my OTTB and seasoned show horse Joey, I noticed a pattern. Every time the temperature drops he turns into a lean, mean rage machine with one mission: canter as fast as we freaking can.
Normally, Joey goes happily in a D ring snaffle, but after ruling out medical issues my trainer and I decided to go through a number of bits and find one that worked well for both of us when Joey was feeling his oats. Despite every fiber in my body screaming to stick to my source-based research on bits, I made a post in a Facebook group hoping others with similar issues would let me know what bit worked for their normally happy now high-strung former track ponies.
One of the first comments I got was “have you checked him for ulcers?”
Not uncommon in off-track Thoroughbreds, gastric ulcers are icky, nasty and anything but wonderful. They cna be responsible for behavioral shifts or sudden changes in performance. That being said, they have also become the giant catch-all for all things wrong when it comes to OTTBs. It’s rare you read through the comments on a equine gathering page and don’t see someone suggest you check a horse for ulcers!
I thought I would take this moment and educate readers on what ulcers are, how to look for them, and how to clear them up/prevent them… but first, a bit of humor.
10 Times the Internet Diagnosed My Horse with Ulcers
1. My OTTB threw a shoe! Gosh darn, he probably has ulcers.
2. He looked at me weird in the crossties. Most definitely ulcers.
3. My red headed mare refused to get in the trailer today next to the new llama I bought and to top it all off I only had five minutes to load and was in a huge hurry! ULCERS ALL THE WAY.
4. My horse has developed a sudden fear of pine trees. You are a horrible horse owner; he obviously has ulcers.
5. Help: my horse runs away from me in the pasture!!! Let me guess: he’s not on an ulcer supplement.
6. How do I help my horse have a more balanced canter? Treat him for ulcers, duh.
7. My new OTTB is so fat, like mega fat. The fattest of fats… why?? Three cheers for ulcers!
8. My horse rolls in the dirt pile after every single bath! So do the other 5,000 OTTBs in the world because they ALL HAVE ULCERS.
9. My horse won’t eat/my horse won’t stop eating… Do I even have to repeat myself? ULCERS.
10. My horse grunts every time I sit down in the saddle. Well it’s definitely not the two dozen cupcakes you just ate; it’s obviously ulcers!
But really: what are ulcers?
All joking aside, gastric ulcers can be a serious health concern which many high-performance horses, including OTTBs, are prone to developing. Joey did in fact come off the track with ulcers and after a bit of research, the symptoms were easy to pick out.
First, a quick synopsis of the equine stomach. A horse’s stomach is comprised of two parts: the non glandular and glandular portions. The glandular portion is lined with glandular tissue, which produces hydrochloric acid and pepsin; these aid with the digestion of food. In the horse, hydrochloric acid is in constant production; therefore if the horse does not have the means to graze all day like he was designed to do, the acids build up and irritate the stomach (read more here on Doctors Foster and Smith’s website).
Exercise, food intake (or lack thereof), and certain medications can play a role in the development of ulcers. It’s easy to see why it can often be the catch-all of diagnoses: horses with ulcers may show signs of poor appetite and less than ideal body condition — check out this photo of Joey below when I first purchased him. He had a hard time gaining weight because his stomach issues made him less likely to eat (now that he’s ulcer free, he’s a fairly easy keeper and eats like a pregnant cow!).
Other signs of ulcers can be irritability when grooming or tacking up, especially around the stomach area. Fussiness while tightening the girth is a big indicator that some gastroenterological distress might be in play. There may be a temperament shift, such as normally personable horses becoming to be grumpy or even dull. The horse’s performance may become lackluster and they will be more prone to colic or other stomach related issues.
Many skilled equestrians can notice signs of ulcers off hand, but it is always wise to have your veterinarian involved. Vets can perform a simple scope on your horse to look for ulcers and will then prescribe treatment. Ulcers can be prevented with a well-balanced diet, careful attention to the horse’s lifestyle and several diet supplements (for example, my boys get a daily dose of U-Gard in their SmartPaks).
All in all, ulcers are NO JOKE — but they are also not the only cause of behavioral or performance-related issues. Work with your trainers, veterinarians, farriers, equine dentists and more to find what works best for your and your horse and the proper diagnosis will soon reveal itself.
As for Joey and me, we are going to try an elevator bit and stay the heck off of equine gathering pages… for now.