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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Turning out a horse to pasture is commonly preferred to confinement, but research at Texas A&M University suggests that if grass is the only hay they are fed, horses can still get gastric ulcers.

According the the study, feeding alfalfa to horses that have the potential to be high performers either prevented or was therapeutic in treating stomach ulcers.

“Something in alfalfa hay tends to buffer acid production,” Pete Gibbs, Texas A&M Extension horse specialist, was quoted in a recent article in America’s Horse Daily.

According to Gibbs, as many as 90 percent of racehorses and more than 50 percent of arena performance horses have ulcers of varying severity.

Stomach ulcers can be a hidden cause of poor performance in horses. A free download on the American Quarter Horse Association website, aqha.com, can help diagnose symptoms. AQHA’s report, “Stomach Ulcers in Horses,” educates on the causes, signs and treatments of this common problem.

When they have ulcers, horses “don’t eat as well, work as well and don’t feel as good,” says Gibbs.

Feeding grain, confinement, exercise and overall environmental stress factors are thought to cause ulcers, he says. Studies have shown that horses will heal if provided less acidic diets.

In the research, 24 stock horses 12 to 16 months of age were separated into two treatment groups. One group was fed Bermuda grass hay and the other fed alfalfa hay to meet their daily roughage needs. The yearlings received forced exercise during the study.

The horses were examined internally with an endoscope at the beginning and end of two 28-day trials.

It’s commonly thought that horses turned out on pasture are better off than those that are confined. However, if grass hay is the only hay they are fed, horses can still get gastric ulcers, Gibbs says.

In this study, ulcer scores increased when alfalfa was removed from the horses’ diets and they were turned out on pasture. Under the ulcer-scoring system, zero signified no ulcers, with severity increasing to 4.

Horse owners – especially those with performance horses – have two options, according to Gibbs. They can give their horses a pharmaceutical product that will decrease acid production, he says, or they can manage their horses’ diets. The second option does not stop acid production but offers buffering capabilities, Gibbs says. More work is needed to look at horses with varying degrees of ulceration to better determine the full extent to which alfalfa or alfalfa-based products might help from a feeding management standpoint.

“Based on what we know right now – for horses that are kept in confinement, eating feed and getting forced exercise – it makes sense to consider some alfalfa as part of their diet,” he says.

Until further research is done, he recommends that horses weighing 1,000-1,300 pounds should be fed about one pound of alfalfa after a grain meal.

This isn’t the first research conducted on gastric ulcers in horses, but it lays the groundwork for further research at Texas A&M. The next study will investigate what it is about alfalfa and alfalfa products that lessens the occurrence and severity of horses’ ulcers.

The free, downloadable “Stomach Ulcers in Horses” report explains the biology of the equine digestive tract and why it is more prone to ulcers than other species.

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