Haylage – protecting your horse from gastric ulcers
Gastric (stomach) ulcers are a major health issue for horses today. It is estimated that 90% or more of racehorses in training and 60% of equestrian, sport and pleasure horses in work have gastric ulcers. These ulcers can cause colic, poor performance, crabby attitudes, loss of appetite, weight loss, picky eating habits, anaemia and poor coat condition.
Medical treatments are highly effective in treating ulcers but they are too expensive for a majority of horse owners and trainers to use continuously as a preventative measure against ulcers. Research has now shown that lucerne can be used to prevent and in some cases treat gastric ulcers in horses. To understand how lucerne works, let’s first look at what causes the ulcers in the first place.
What causes gastric ulcers?
The horse’s stomach can be divided into two distinct sections. The lower stomach is known as the glandular mucosa while the upper stomach is called the non-glandular or squamous mucosa. Acid and protein digesting enzymes are continuously secreted into the lower region of the stomach which protects itself from attack by these fluids by secreting bicarbonate (buffer) and thick mucous.
The upper region of the stomach however is largely unprotected from these acids and instead relies on the saliva produced during eating and chewing for long periods of the day and the stomach remaining full of fibre to buffer and physically protect itself from the acids and enzymes present in the lower region of the stomach.
Unfortunately for the stomach, our modern management practices of meal feeding and restricting access to pasture or hay mean that horses chew and salivate less and have more time when the stomach isn’t actually full. So the upper region of the stomach loses both of its primary forms of protection.
Combine this with grain feeding which allows the fermentation of starch and the production of VFAs in the horses stomach which have been shown to damage the upper stomach lining AND forced exercise which is now known to physically squash a horses stomach and push the highly acidic gastric juices from the bottom of the stomach up onto the unprotected areas of the upper stomach and you have the perfect environment for the acid to physically damage the upper stomach and cause ulcers.
How can lucerne help?
Two studies have now shown that lucerne is able to assist with preventing and resolving gastric ulcers in horses.
In the first study (Nadeau et al 2000), horses fed a lucerne-grain diet has less ulcers and the ulcers they did have were less severe than horses fed a grass hay only diet.
Horses fed the lucerne-grain diet had a significantly higher gastric pH for 6 hours post feeding than horses fed the grass hay, leading researchers to conclude that the protein and calcium in lucerne has a useful buffering effect in the equine stomach. These authors also report that the calcium in lucerne may actually help by reducing gastric acid secretions, a mode of action that has been demonstrated in mice.
So while it is well recognised that feeding grains to horses can increase gastric acid secretions and raises volatile fatty acid (VFA) concentrations in the stomach, the lucerne fed with the grain in this study was able to buffer the stomach enough to protect the upper regions of the stomach from being damaged by the gastric acid and VFAs.
In the second study (Lybbert 2007) horses fed coastal bermuda grass hay together with a grain based pelleted ration experienced increased ulcer incidence and severity (Figure 1) while horses fed lucerne hay with the pelleted feed had a significantly lower ulcer incidence and the ulcers they did have were less severe (Figure 2).
Lybbert (2007) concluded that lucerne can be effective for healing or preventing gastric ulcers in young, exercising horses.
Using Haylage to protect your horse from ulcers
Here are some practical ways you can use Haylage to reduce the risk of your horse developing gastric ulcers:
1. Feed 1- 2 kg of Haylage prior to exercise. The Haylage and the saliva produced while chewing it will help to buffer the stomach contents and will physically help to stop acids from the lower part of the stomach from being pushed up and damaging the upper region of the stomach during exercise.
2. Feed 1 – 2 kg of Haylage immediately following exercise. The Haylage and saliva will help to quickly buffer the upper part of the stomach if gastric acids have moved up into this area during exercise,
3. Feed Haylage with your grain based pellets, cubes or sweetfeeds to provide buffering protection and stop the VFAs produced when the grains are fermented in the stomach from damaging the upper areas of the stomach.
4. Feed Haylage prior to and during travel. Haylage will help to buffer and protect the stomach from gastric ulcers during travel. It is also a high moisture, no dust feed that will help to keep travelling horses hydrated and their lungs clear from debris.
5. Feed some Haylage to stabled horses that are in work every 6 hours to maintain a higher stomach pH. The higher you can keep the pH in the stomach the less risk there is of your horse developing ulcers.