Ouch, My Stomach Hurts

Written By Walt Friedrich

Horses are grazers. We all know that. They would spend 24 hours out of every day, doing just that if they could. It’s quite natural, and the wild ones actually do that because their lifestyles allow it. Domestics – not so much.

Oh, they would if they could, but only the lucky ones get to spend much time on pasture. A large percentage of domestics are routinely stalled overnight as well as part of the day, effectively removing them from graze for more than half of their lives!

And that’s unfortunate for a number of reasons. Here’s a big one: ulcers.

See, their Creator had a beautiful plan in mind when She designed them. Let them nibble all the time, always have something in their stomachs, always ready for anything climate and weather throws their way. Because of that constant eating-machine design, She caused digestive stomach acid to be secreted constantly, always available to deal with food. And because the horse was constantly grazing, She made saliva quite potent and copious, helping to mediate all that stomach acid. She even coated the bottom half of the stomach with a mucous lining to protect it from that acid.

It’s a brilliant design; constant stomach acid available to handle constant intake of grass, and plenty saliva to help control that powerful acid. It’s so slick that as long as the horse lives as She intended – wild – there was little need for anything more.

Ah, but then came domestication, and everything changed – that is, for those we put to work for us. Those endless miles of wild-growing grass are no longer available to them. Instead of grazing 24/7, they get to eat hay, not steadily, but rather in one or two large “feedings” per day, along with a pound or two of grain – and maybe some pasture grass grazing in between, if they’re lucky.

So, what does that altered eating cycle do to their stomachs? Well, since it’s empty much of the time but the acid keeps coming, they get to feeling like you and I do, when we get an acid stomach – but they have to live with it, on  a regular basis. They don’t have Prilosec or even Tums to help with that burning. But it doesn’t stop there – that acid that’s continuously pumped into the stomach whose upper half has no protective “armor plating”, freely attacks that surface, eventually eating holes into it, creating a nasty situation that results in – gasp – ulcers! And not just in the stomach – that stomach acid passes down into the digestive tract, where it can cause even more ulcers to form.

It’s been said that there are just two kinds of domestic horses – those with ulcers and those who haven’t developed them yet. And these sweet, magnificent beasts can’t even tell us, in a way that most of us understand, that it hurts. They do give us the signals, but few of us seem to recognize them for what they are, and the horse just goes through life with stomach pain.

Here are some of the signals:
Poor performance
Attitude changes
Poor coat
Poor body condition
Tucked-up appearance
Poor appetite
Colic

And more: a normally calm horse might…
Kick inside the trailer
Pin ears when being mounted for riding
Flinch, bite or kick when girth tightened
Act up in general

Thus far, we’ve described the most common cause of ulcer development – constantly allowing our horse’s stomach to cycle between empty and full. Now let’s examine another cause, one that is actually a complication of cause number one and is particularly frustrating – excessive administration of NSAIDS, especially Bute.

Bute is the most effective and most common high potency analgesic we give to our horses. It’s almost as common in treating horses as aspirin is to you and me. And it certainly is effective – but the horse pays a price, and sometimes a very heavy one, because Bute is a double-barreled remedy. Its chemical composition causes it to suppress two important enzymes. Enzyme One is responsible for the secretion of the stomach coating that protects its lower half from the destructive effect of its own stomach acid. Enzyme Two is responsible for allowing pain to be felt anywhere in the body.

To explain, let’s consider a hypothetical: our horse is laminitic. We want to eliminate the pain, and so we dose him with Bute. Bute suppresses Enzyme Two, reducing or eliminating the pain – a good thing. But Bute also suppresses Enzyme One, preventing the protective stomach layer from forming – a bad thing. Now our horse is more comfortable with his pain reduced, but he’s vulnerable to the development of stomach ulcers because the stomach wall is unprotected. An occasional one mg dose of Bute is unlikely to result in an ulcer. But one mg twice a day for an extended period – common practice for treatment of laminitis and founder, for example – greatly increases the potential for those dreaded ulcers to develop, and we’ve got us a Hobson’s Choice.

However, there is help. A large number of pharmaceuticals are available to counteract the effects of an ulcer, even to prevent its development in the first place. These include GastroGard, UlcerGard, Ranitidine, Sucralfate, Ulc-Rid, Succeed, Nutrient Buffer, among others. These preparations are effective to varying degrees, and the one thing they have in common is that they are expensive.

Fortunately, a lower-cost, highly effective, non-pharmaceutical option is also available: lecithin. Lecithin replaces that stomach-protecting layer, lost when Bute suppresses Enzyme One. Lecithin is chemically very similar to that layer, which means that by replacing what Bute destroys, it counters Bute’s negative effect. Studies have confirmed that not only does lecithin reduce stomach injury, in some cases it even eliminates existing ulceration. What’s particularly impressive, it provides this protection without modifying the effectiveness of Bute as a pain killer. And adding icing to the cake, lecithin is readily available and comparatively inexpensive!

We’re getting a little complicated, so let’s take a moment and recap the major points:

Stomach acid: for ourselves, we think of it only when it’s backing up into our esophagus and causing heartburn. But it is absolutely vital. It initiates digestion of ingested food. For the horse, it is also his defense against all those microbes that accompany every bite of grass. But it can burn holes in his unprotected stomach.

Protective stomach coating: a secreted substance known as a phospholipid. It protects the stomach wall from its own digestive acid.

Bute (et al): an analgesic, especially important to horses, with a side-effect that results in the loss of the stomach-protective coating, leaving the horse vulnerable to developing ulcers.

Commercially available ulcer medication, mostly pharmaceutical: treats and sometimes cures and prevents ulcers; expensive.

Lecithin: a naturally occurring substance abundantly found in animal and plant cell membranes. As with pharmaceutical products, lecithin can prevent development of ulcers, even eliminate them. Relatively inexpensive.

Just what is lecithin and where do we get it? Lecithin is also a phospholipid, very similar to the natural stomach protective coating, capable of supporting or replacing it. Soy beans are the primary source for commercially prepared lecithin. It is extracted from soybean oil during processing, and undergoes further processing to make it easily edible and palatable.

Lecithin granules are available on-line. Search around, you’ll find it as low as about $5 per pound. If you dose your horse with one cup per day, he’ll be getting about five ounces of lecithin granules; thus one pound will last about three days, costing about $1.65 per day. The compounded anti-ulcer medications mentioned earlier range between $5 and $50 per day.

Domestication has resulted in a fundamental change in the horse’s natural eating habits to the extent that he is much more subject to the development of gastric and intestinal ulcers. But we can counter that very negative result in two major ways. Where feasible, we can structure his daily routine to ensure he’ll have something in his stomach almost constantly. Where we can’t make that change, we can provide him regularly with effective medications to help his system fight off the development of an ulcer, and do so at  reasonable cost. Either way, we’ll be making a happier, healthier horse – and that’s a nice benefit to us, as well.

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