We humans have been taught not to exercise on a full stomach, but to wait thirty minutes after eating before doing anything strenuous. However, as you may have noticed, horses are different. Horses evolved as constant grazers, and their stomach should never be empty. Eating means producing saliva, and saliva helps protect the lining of the stomach. Food in the stomach prevents gastric acids in the lower stomach from splashing around and irritating the upper stomach. A lack of eating and an empty stomach can be one of the causes of why horses get gastric ulcers.
If your horse is stabled without access to hay, or it’s been more than a couple of hours since your horse was last given hay or a chance to graze, you should feed your horse before you exercise them. You can either let them graze for fifteen or twenty minutes, or you should offer them two hundred to three hundred grams per one hundred kilograms (220lb) of your horse’s bodyweight. Use a larger meal size if your horse hasn’t been fed in five hours or more, smaller if it’s been less than five hours.
While any forage will work for feeding before exercising, if you’re concerned about ulcers, alfalfa (also known as lucerne) hay has been shown to be quite helpful when it comes to preventing and healing ulcers. If alfalfa hay is available and is part of your horse’s diet, it would make an excellent choice for their pre-exercising feeding. If you train your horse off-site, you should also provide a small amount of alfalfa hay after your horse’s cool down, this feeding helps keep the stress of travel down and reduce stomach upset.
What you should never do, however, is to feed a horse grain before exercise as this can cause colic. Eating grain produces far less saliva and requires far more effort on the part of the horse’s stomach. Far more blood goes to the stomach and intestines to digest grain than hay, and when you’re exercising your horse, the blood is not one hundred percent available for the muscles to do their work and this can lead to cramps and colic on top of stomach issues such as excess gastric acids and splashing.
A great help in equine stomach health and preventing ulcers is Omeprazole. Omeprazole is from the family of proton pump inhibitors (PPI’s) that blocks secretion of acid and assists in prevention, and healing, of ulcers. Whichever method you choose as best for you and your horse, may your horse have and keep a healthy stomach!