Can You Tell If I’m Well?
Those of you who know me will know that this is a subject quite close to my heart. You can tell because of the amount I bang on about it. 🤪
Ever since I discovered the existence of these irritating little nasties, I’ve made it my business to understand more about them, collecting evidence based on all the facts that I have discovered over the years.
Having been fortunate enough to work with so many different types, breeds and ages of horse living in different environments being ridden in different disciplines owned by all sorts of folks with varying ideas, and having been privy to the results of many scoping’s, by now I might be able to claim that I know what I’m talking about. But you know what? Pretty much the only thing I know for sure is that no one completely knows what they are talking about. Apart for the person who tells you that they can’t possibly know whether a horse has ulcers or not and to what degree until they have seen the results of a gastroscope.
If you’ve never heard of gastric ulcers in horses or you don’t know much about them then I firstly urge you to educate yourself. They are proven now to be so common in horses that if you are going to own one at all then knowing about and understanding them should be considered a must. If you don’t own a horse yet then it may even influence your decision to do so, as if found, their treatment can be extremely costly and is often poorly covered by insurance. Not to mention the potential long term headache that owning and managing an ulcer prone horse can be.
When I look back over the years I’ve been around horses I often feel sadness at the number of them I’ve known who have been labelled as difficult or naughty and treated badly as a result, when in fact it was highly lightly that they were suffering from this painful condition. If I only knew then what I know now… But I can’t change the past. What I can do is use the experience and the knowledge I have gained over the years to help now and that is what this post is all about.
Firstly, I want to dispel the myth that there is any such thing as a typical Ulcer Horse. Horses I have seen scope positive include, fat horses, thin horses, varying breeds, ponies, horses that live out 24/7, horses on grass, off grass, horses in work, out of work, horses with serious behavioural issues to ones who have been a little off colour compared to the norm. You get the gist… What matters is your horse’s actual behaviour and or his body state and wherever these are in question, ulcers should be a consideration.
Again, based on experience and having now spoken with a number of vets on the subject, it is clear that the degree of pain reaction a horse shows outwardly can bear little relation to the severity of the grade of ulceration found, proving that horses clearly have differing pain thresholds and abilities to cope with their pain. There are no “typical” signs. A horse may or may not show any of the commonly thought of signs such as girthiness or aggression and still be full of them.
Just like humans horses react to their pain in many different ways. We may have our own ideas about what constitutes a pain reaction however your horse may have other ideas about that so it’s important to be open to recognising possible behaviours that don’t necessary fit your personal ideas.
It’s also crucial to remember that horses have evolved to hide outward signs of pain or weakness so by the time these are obvious your horse could be in real trouble.
Let it be said at this point that I have also seen horses with serious training and behavioural issues who have scoped clear so it’s not to say that every horse with an issue has ulcers, but it’s a very sensible place to start.
Which brings me to the main point of this post, and that is, no one not even God can know if your horse has ulcers unless they look inside with a gastroscope and in my opinion any vet or practitioner who tells you they can is doing you and your horse a disservice right there. It’s not possible! I have now seen countless horses scope positive who have previously had it said, by a professional, that they are ‘not an ulcer horse’.
Despite the fact that knowing the health of your horse’s foregut can only be a positive thing, I often come across resistance from owners to having their horse scoped or re-scoped following treatment. Below is a list of the most common reasons I hear.
- I’ve been told my horse is not a typical ulcer horse or that he doesn’t have them by another professional.
- I’ve been told that my horse just has behavioural issues that need a trainer.
- I don’t like the idea of the scoping. It’s stressful/painful for the horse etc.
- I don’t want to starve my horse for the time required prior to the scoping.
- My horse lives a stress-free life of 24/7 turnout and a forage diet. He can’t have them.
- I can’t afford it.
- There’s no point because you can’t keep them at bay even after treatment.
- I suspect my horse has ulcers but I’m going to treat with a natural supplement first and see…
- If there are non found then I have just wasted X pounds.
I’d like to flip each one of the above on its head and come from the perspective of the horse with some added logic.
- You simply can’t tell without a scope. It’s not possible unless you possess the super power of having x-ray eyes.
- Behavioural issues often play a part. Many badly trained horses are suffering from a huge amount of stress which we know contributes to ulcers. It’s rarely an either/or situation and eradicating ulcers from these horses is often only part of the solution.
- The truth is that scoping is a relatively quick and simple procedure carried out under standing sedation. Yes, it’s probably not the most fun your horse ever had but compared to a potential lifetime of pain and stress? Many vets have mobile scoping equipment now so not even any need to travel.
- Your horse will need food withheld overnight. In reality many horses have run out of hay well before morning and will spend a number of hours sleeping. You might find it uncomfortable to do it but that’s about you. Again, compared to a possible lifetime of pain and stress, you just need to put your brave pants on for your horse.
- If your horse is showing behavioural issues, or signs of discomfort then he has a problem. Whether he lives in or out is irrelevant at this stage. It can take one stressful event to set up ulcers which can then self perpetuate over time despite good natural management.
- Try to find the money. There may be other things that could take a back seat for a while. That new rug or matchy set, or a few lessons even. Unfortunately treatment is the most expensive part. Don’t get me started on the the amount of horses that end up suffering because the price of Gastroguard is so probative for many people once their insurance has run out.
- You just haven’t found the answer YET. And if it proves impossible then retirement or euthanasia may be an option, both of which are big decisions that should surely only be made according to factual findings.
- Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a cure for ulcers to be found in natural or holistic medicine OR just paddock rest and a fibre diet. I for one would be elated by that finding and for some horses perhaps this may indeed be the answer. So, by all means try it but in order to know for sure if you succeeded you will need a scope before and after treatment. I have seen horses outwardly improve immeasurably yet still scope positive.
- Now we know so much more these days about how important gut health is for us all, knowing the health of your horse’s tummy can never be a waste of money. Many people spend/waste vast amounts of money over years on random unproven gut supplements. It is highly unlikely that you will fix your horses ulcers with a supplement. At least no one has proved it to me yet via a before and after scoping. Please feel free to do so if you can. I’d be very grateful to know about it.
Sadly, it is all too often true that some horses’ ulcers return despite seemingly every best effort. If this is the case then more thought might need to go into the possible causes and solutions. Often times the solutions can make for inconvenience. But is this a reason not to know?
The truth is that ulcers are not only painful for horses they are inconvenient for owners. They also have an interesting aspect in that their existence can introduce uncomfortable moral questions for us of if we think too hard about it.
We all love our horses and to think about them in pain is uncomfortable but not thinking logically about it isn’t going to make them go away. For this reason, we must check in on ourselves to ensure we aren’t using any of the above “excuses” because that’s what they are, as an evasion to doing the very best by our horses if we suspect there to be a problem.
No one wants to scope their horse, it’s not what we signed up for and it’s a bit of a pain in the bum. No one wants to withhold food from their horse. No one wants to discover that their horse is suffering. No one wants to spend all that money on having to do a bunch of stuff that they didn’t want to do in the first place, but it’s not about you. We do what we do for them because we can and they can’t.
So, if your horse is not doing what it says on the tin, you have that niggle and you think there might be chance, don’t get on the ‘excuse bus’ just grit your teeth and do it. Be the best friend your horse ever had. It’s all over and done with before you both know it and you will be in receipt of the most valuable information.
If you want to make it about you then I can tell you that whatever the outcome, I have only ever felt the relief that comes after having faced something I’d been putting off.
If you are fortunate enough to have a healthy happy horse whose behaviour both ridden and on the ground is calm, predictable for the most part and shows no sign of pain or anxiety then great! Please share this anyway in case it can help another.