Could feeding alfalfa hay help cure high-performance horses of stomach ulcers?
It’s commonly thought that horses turned out on pasture are better off than those that are confined, but if grass hay is the only hay they are fed, horses can still get gastric ulcers.
A change in diet can be good for what ails you – even if you are a horse.
Research from Texas A&M University shows that 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,” says Pete Gibbs, Texas A&M Extension horse specialist. Thirty percent of the 1 million horses in Texas are used in racing, showing and competitive performance, Pete says.
As many as 90 percent of racehorses and more than 50 percent of arena performance horses have ulcers of varying severity, he says.
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When they have ulcers, horses “don’t eat as well, work as well and don’t feel as good,” Pete says.
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, Pete 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, Pete says.
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, Pete 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.
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