Horses are very delicate creatures. They feed off of the environment around them, and they use their "gut instincts" to keep them alive. So it's safe to say that their gut needs to be very healthy in order to keep them healthy and alive.
Makes sense right?
But so many of us completely ignore this when caring for our horses. Over the years, I've really focused on nutrition and getting the diet right and eliminating all the bad foods and practices, which is great, and it definitely helps. But what about when the gut isn't healthy enough to do anything with these good nutrients? Then what?
Then we need to focus on healing the gut so that it CAN properly absorb the good nutrition. Toxins, medications, dewormers, vaccinations, stress, poor quality feeds, high grain/sugar/starch, etc. can all cause gastric upset which can lead to a cascade of other issues in the body most would not really connect with the gut.
For instance, ULCERS can cause:
Biting at people
Sensitivity in the girth, sternum, wither and lower back areas
Cinchiness or pinning ears when saddled
Spookiness, overreacting to normal things
Slow eating or changes in eating habits
Muscle wasting/loss of topline
Biting at belly or flank
I assumed for a long time that their bellies could possibly be sore or they could lose their appetite with ulcers, but this whole list can explain A LOT of common issues owners have with their horses. The amazing and awesome thing is, feeding the horse to take care of the gut is super simple and relatively cheap compared to scoping, running tests, buying medications (that really do not solve the issue) and then having to deal with the side effects or reoccurence of the issue because the true cause was never addressed.
By changing the diet we can knock out many, many problems for horses which translate into issues for us, for quite literally a couple bucks a day at most. Typicallys scoping to find ulcers and the medical treatment can cost around $800 for one month. Then of course you would want to re-scope to make sure the ulcers were in fact improved or gone, so now we are looking at $1,000 or more!!
I don't know about you, but I am not willing to spend that kind of money when home remedies have been proven to heal ulcers and gastric problems. No thank you.
A great website with an awesome explanation of ulcers and tummy issues is found here,
Equine Ulcers and Remedies (I do not suggest using the listed medications. If possible, avoid these)
Ulcers are not the only cause of gut problems, although they are a large part. I now highly recommend doing a 3 month "detox and rehab" for the gut if there are any of the above listed issues. As I said before, it's very cheap and can solve a lot of problems. Plus, it will help boost the absorption of the good nutrients we are adding to the diet! Even horses without ulcers can greatly benefit from this and it gives a "clean slate" so to speak to start whatever healing process is needed.
Detox and Rehab
- Add hardwood charcoal to the drinking water for a week to help detox the body (preferrably use filtered water at all times!)
- Add clean bentonite or montmorillonite clay to the feed to help detox and soothe the stomach
- Add gut healing/soothing herbs (marshmallow root, licorice, slippery elm, peppermint, tumeric, yarrow) Tummy B Calm Ultra
- Add aloe vera (this is well known to help heal stomach issues and is no new thing concerning the use for ulcers in horses or in people)Aloe Vera Benefits
- Add in small amounts of cabbage (contains L-glutamine which has been found to aid in the rapid healing of ulcers)
- Add gut healing seeds (Chia seed and Psyllium seed both have mucilage to help coat the digestive tract and high fiber to keep things moving)
- Remove all sources of highly processed feeds for good (sweet feeds, most pelleted feeds from the farm store)
- Remove mineral blocks and salt blocks and replace with natural, loose salt for good
A diet full of varied forage (unimproved but managed pasture, hays, shrubs, weeds, roots, seeds, fruits and veggies), herbs, clays and natural, loose salt can work miracles for the horse's health. Personally, I also recommend adding in a mineral supplement like California Trace or Arizona Copper Complete because in my area, (Illinois) and most areas, we have very high iron levels and very, very low copper and zinc. Copper and zinc are very important to a properly functioning immune system and general health. Magnesium is also very important and can and should be supplemented as it does not have a known toxicity rate and is often deficient in diets. It is easiest to know what minerals are high or low in your area/barn by running a hay test. Another great product I would recommend taking a look at is Crypto Aero Whole Food Supplement. Read this article and I think it may change your mind on how we have been told to feed horses traditionally. Don't blindly follow tradition for the sake of tradition. Listen to what your horse is telling you!
The more we can allow our horses to live like horses, the more health we will see radiating from them! How do we do this?? Let's take a look!
Lots and lots of movement
-If you only have an acre or two create a track to maximize movement from one area (feeding) to another (water) to another (loafing). The more movement you have, the happier the horse will be, the more exercise they will get, the more muscle they will build and keep without having to constantly work them, the more calm they will be and it will keep the gut moving and functioning well.
Loose salt and clay for them to eat when they choose to
-Horses in the wild will lick dirt, clay and salt for different reasons and our domestic horses will do this too! This allows them to choose what they need, when they feel like they need it.
-In the wild horses will also seek out different plants for their varying nutrient compositions and healing properties. We can also see this in our domestic horses when they are offered herbs or oils to sample by smell. It's very easy to see which they like and dislike and so far, when chosing oils or herbs my horse has been dead on with choosing ones that help the issue he is having! Pretty cool!
-Most horses will develop attitude problems, depression and ulcers when kept alone. A few seem to do ok with it, but most do not. They are herd animals. They are meant to have a pecking order and buddies to watch their back when they sleep. Just simply incorporating a friend for your horse can help them heal. Horses should be with horses, but if you can't afford another horse or don't have the space, goats, sheep and donkeys can make wonderful friends. Just be aware that sheep and donkeys have very different nutritional needs and sheep cannot have added copper supplements when feeding.
A diet that mimics what they would get in nature
-Small amounts of forage all day long, fed in a way that increases movement is best. Using small bales and spreading the hay out over a track to keep the horses moving is ideal. Or if you have them out on pasture, take a four wheeler out and throw a flake of hay here and there to make them walk to get the food. A mature, grass hay mix is best for most horses as it is higher fiber, lower protein and usually lower in sugar and starch.
-This decreases movement dramatically, especially for those poor horses that are stuck in stalls 24/7 except when ridden or occasionally put outside in "good weather." I absolutely hate the idea of stalling except for extreme weather, sickness or healing. When I used to work on the hooves of horses that were stalled all I would see was thrush, invasion of bacteria/fungus in the white line, weak walls from standing in urine and decreased frog health. Not to mention those horses are usually stir crazy and hard to even work on. They also pack in dead sole that should be exfoliating on it's own with movement over varried terrain which keeps the hoof from flexing like it should and slowing bloodflow.
Feeding high nutrient hay
-Alfalfa can be great for healing, adding protein and adding nutrients not found in grass hays because of its deep tap roots. However, when it is fed as the sole forage, we have to regulate how much is fed because of the high caloric content. This means horses will only get a certain amount in the moring and a certain amount at night to outwardly maintain weight. This in itself will cause ulcers, bad habbits and bad behaviors as well as taxing the kidneys and skewing the calcium:phosphorus ratio in the diet. This ratio can be very harmful to growing horses as well as adults.
Graining or feeding high sugar/starch feeds
-Most horses do no need grain. Period. Unless you are working them and going miles a day, doing endurance, racing or actual work, we can pretty much throw oats, corn and wheat out the window. While we are at it, anything with soy, pitch it too. These all cause many issues in the gut that we can also see in the coat, hooves and eyes. If we are seeing dull eyes, dull coat and dull/unhealthy hooves, take a look at that ingredient list and see if any of these are listed. High grain diets (and even low grain for some horses) can cause ulcers, laminitis, obesity and some conditions like IR, Cushings and Metabolic Syndrome are worsened with grain.
-Keeping horses by themselves is extremely stressful. They rely on their herd to stay safe and alive. Even in domestic situations where there are no lions or bears around to eat them, they still need that security blanket. Housing horses separately but next to each other where they can see, touch and smell each other can alleviate some of the anxiety, but being with another horse, or group is really best. The closer we can mimic their natural tendencies, the more health we will see.