Gastric issues in horses are extremely serious and can cause great pain. There are essentially two kinds of ulceration. One of these occurs in the upper or squamous part of the stomach. The other, in the lower or glandular region. Ulcers are unfortunately all too common in racing and competition horses. We will consider here both kinds of ulceration.
Squamous ulceration may be exacerbated by movement. In this case, the horse has not eaten for a period of time, and is then worked. Rapid movement can cause acid drops from the glandular lower part of the stomach to splash up. These drops burn the upper squamous part which is less well protected.
Training, including fast work on an empty stomach, increases the risk of the acid splash, resulting in damage to the upper part of the stomach.
If acid splash is affecting the squamous region, there is a simple way of improving the situation. A couple of handfuls of chaff will absorb excess acid. This can be given about 30 minutes before work begins. Excess acid is absorbed in this way. In a recent seminar, Gillian Higgins discusses this with nutritionist Clare MacLeod. Her all-day seminar on equine nutrition is essential viewing.
In the wild, horses graze for up to 16 hours each day. As horses produce acid continuously, acidity is reduced by continuous foraging. Bicarbonate in the saliva is also produced as the horse chews. With free access to hay, haylage or grass, the natural reduction of acidity continues. Acidity increases however if horses receive high-concentrate diets with limited access to forage. Prolonged periods without forage lead to increased gastric acidity. Such periods can be due to ill-health, or result from management decisions. Stress can also be a factor.
There are no definitive external signs that a horse has gastric ulcers. Clues may however come in the form of decreased performance and behavioral changes.Poor body condition, loss of appetite, and colics may also alert the owner. Diagnosis can only be carried out by your vet. The vet will perform a gastric endoscopy and examine the stomach lining. Gastric issues are likely to show up in energy balancing, but this approach is non-diagnostic. The first and immediate port of call is your vet.
Helping your Horse with herbs
Once your vet has diagnosed the situation, there are things we can do, holistically. There are many herbs that are extremely supportive to the stomach lining. I will now write about some of those herbs. Following the vet’s visit, I would want to test these herbs to see which of them are relevant to your horse.
In the energy testing approach, we ask which plants would balance the gastric sensitivity? Which plants might bring equilibrium to this kind of imbalance? In a very simple way, we can actually energy test these one by one. We can also get an idea of the quantities required. Using zoopharmacognosy, your horse could also self-select.
There are five common herbs that are extremely helpful for gastric issues. These are Comfrey, Licorice root, Marshmallow root, Meadowsweet. There is also Slippery Elm usually in the form of a powder. These herbs soothe and balance the digestive tract.
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
Comfrey is one of the most specific plants for gastric ulcers. The mucilaginous content is soothing to the inflamed tissue. This plant is common throught the UK, Europe and the US. It has both anti-inflammatory and demulcent properties. The healing properties of this plant come from a substance called Allantoin. Allantoin stimulates cell division, and hence encourages wound healing. Studies have shown that comfrey can reduce inflammation in the inflamed stomach lining. It is thus appropriate for any gastric condition, including ulcers, colic and colitis.
Liquorice root. (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Liquorice is excellent in the case of Ulcers. The plant produces a thick and sticky mucus which reduces gastric acid. In this way it promotes healing. Liquorice has many healing actions, as an anti-inflammatory, demulcent, and expectorant. It also has antibacterial and anti-viral properties. It has been used in medicine for over three millenia. Ancient herbals have recommended the plant for both humans and animals. It is the demulcent activity that makes Liquorice suitable for horses with ulceration.
Marshamallow root (Althea officinalis)
This plant is currently found throughout Europe, the US and Australia. Another demulcent and mucilagenous plant, it is excellent for horses with ulcers. As with Dandelion, both the root and leaves maybe used. In this case, it is the root which is appropriate. The leaf is generally used for the respiratory and urinary systems. The leaves can also be used for coughs. The root is specific for the digestive system: ulceration, inflammation, scouring and colitis.
Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria).
Meadowsweet is common throughout Britain and Europe, parts of Asia and North America. This is another highly specific plant for ulceration. It can be very helpful if the ulceration is drug-induced. Meadowsweet protects the digestive tract, and reduces excess acid. Meadowsweet is also known as the herbal aspirin, as it contains salicylic acid. A certain pharmaceutical company patented acetylsalicylic acid many years ago. This drug we now know as aspirin. It is not the salicylic acid that is helpful in cases of ulceration, but the tannins and mucilage.
Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra)
This plant acts as an internal poultice, reduces acid secretions, and soothes inflammation. it is common to central and Eastern regions of the US. This plant is rich in mucilage and can be both a food and medicine. When the plant is moistened, it takes on a slippery and slimy texture. It can be used internally to soothe the digestive tract. The action of this plant is gentle and very soothing.
If you suspect that your horse has ulceration, you should call your vet immediately. Follow their advice to the letter. That said, there are many herbs that are helpful to horses in this situation. Comfrey, Licorice root, Marshmallow root, Meadowsweet, and also Slippery Elm. Please note that this article is purely informational in nature. It is not “diagnostic”. A qualified equine herbalist can offer guidance on working with these and other herbs.
I also carry out energy balancing work and am able to guide you, both on-site or at distance. If you would like to discuss a more holistic approach to your horse’s care, please get in touch using the link below. I would love to hear from you.
Gillian Higgins, Horses Inside Out Academy. Equine digestive seminar.
Horse and Hound: Gastric ulcers in horses: the important facts every owner needs to know.
Hillary Page Self. A Modern Horse Herbal, Kenilworth Press, 2004.
I hope this article has been helpful. Many other articles about plants and horses appear on my blog. They are also linked to my Professional Facebook Page. If there is a plant or issue that you would like me to write about, please get in touch via Contacts.
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