If you’re planning a big getaway with your horses this coming holiday weekend, remember that traveling can be stressful for them. Even though you’re itching to get out and go, they may need a little help from you to be in top form for your weekend’s adventures. Ulcers can be present, even when you don’t know they’re there.

Understanding Ulcers

A horse’s gut is a complex system of checks and balances. They are constantly secreting gastric acid to help break down food, however, a low pH (higher acidity) can take its toll on the lining of your horse’s stomach if it remains too low for too long.

When horses become stressed or move around excessively, their stomachs contract, forcing the stomach acid up into the upper sections. You can think of it kind of like having a balloon half-full of water. When you squeeze the lower portion the liquid travels into the upper areas of the balloon, including the neck. A horse’s stomach works somewhat the same way. When you compound this with no forage or other buffers within this part of the gut, the pH continues to drop, creating an increasingly acidic environment. This acid then begins to erode the mucosal lining of the gut and can even creep up into the esophagus. The discomfort created by these ulcers can manifest in many different ways, but some of the more common signs can include diarrhea, a lack of appetite, lethargy or acting antsy or “hot”, being “cinchy” and unwilling to have something around their girths, hunching of the back, kicking at the belly with their hind legs, tail swishing, and neck stretching.  The list goes on, but these are several that are indicative of possible ulcers.

How Ulcers Affect Hauling

Horses are creatures of habit (aren’t we all?) and become distressed when taken away from familiar surroundings. Many horses learn to cope well with these changes and will outwardly appear as though they’re fine or only mildly unsettled, but inside a storm can be brewing. Hauling can bring on internal stress responses in the calmest of horses.

As mentioned above, when a horse becomes active, either through stress or activity, their stomachs “shrink”, pushing acid upward. This rapidly lowers the pH. If they’ve had ulcers developing for some time — even mild ones — this acid further erodes those areas and causes pain and irritation. Many people experience the “trailering monster” phenomenon with their horses — full-on tantrums to avoid having to get into the trailer. This may not be so much behavioral as a physiological response to the acid washing over the linings of their stomachs.

 

How to Help Support Your Horse

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t be hauling your horse. There are, however, some things you can do to help minimize the impact it has on their overall well-being.

  • Always feed and allow them to eat before you head out. An empty stomach is more prone to acid damage, as there’s nothing in it to mix with and buffer the acids. If possible, avoid concentrated feeds such as grains, as this can lower the pH and create a more acidic gastric environment.
  • Provide adequate hay while traveling — even shorter distances. Horses are designed to be foraging and grazing all day long; as such, having access to feed will allow them to self-regulate their gut pH.
  • Administer a specialized buffering supplement prior to loading. This will keep the pH more neutral and help avoid the irritation that can cause your horse to “act up.”
  • Always make sure your horse receives adequate water stops while on the road and if needed, a chance to get off the trailer and walk around.
  • If you have a particularly sensitive horse, consider giving them another dose of buffering supplement upon arrival (as long as it’s indicated on the label that you can do so). The same goes for when you’re getting ready to leave and head back — they don’t know they’re going home. They just know they’re having to get in the trailer again.

With just a few small changes you can make traveling more comfortable for you AND your horse!

Sources:

www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/ceh/local_resources/pdfs/pubs-Oct2012-sec.pdf

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