Humans are told never to swim immediately after eating a heavy meal to avoid stomach cramps. We’re also told never to work out on a completely empty stomach. So where do our Equine friends fall on the spectrum? Should they run around with empty or filled tummies? Ideally, horses should have at least SOME food in their stomachs at all times. Due to their sensitive nature to gas ulcers, horse owners can’t be too careful.
Naturally, horses are constantly grazing and taking in large amounts of food which creates a layer of fiber which floats atop stomach acid. This layer acts as a barrier and prevents the acid from splashing and entering the nonglandular part of the stomach that does not have a protective mucus. When horses are meal fed, the layer begins to dissipate and ultimately results in less of a barrier between stomach acids and the unprotected tissues. A large number of gastric ulcers are found in the nonglandular portion of the stomach or along the stomach’s dividing line, the margo plicatus.
When your horse finishes its meal, it has about six hours until most of it leaves the stomach. When exercising or riding your horse before meal time or hours following its last meal, the stomach is missing the same amount of protection from stomach acids that would have been present shortly after the meal was finished. However, many foods help act as a buffer and raise the pH levels of stomach acid such as alfafa and other high calcium legumes. Chewing conjures the release of saliva, which also acts as a buffer for stomach acids. Moral of the story: if your horse eats closer to riding time, the stomach acids could very well be less acidic. If you’re about to ride your horse and know its been a while since a meal, try to feed it something beforehand, whether that’s some treats or a bale of hay.
Supplements have also proven to protect stomach lining although they usually seem to be a more fleeting fix than a permanent solution. Their benefits only last a few hours but would be fine in circumstances where you need an acid buffer for the length of your ride. As always, make sure to do proper research and figure out the solution that works best for you and your horse.
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