Texas A&M Research Finds that Alfalfa Can Prevent Gastric Ulcers in Performance-Prospect Horses

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New research from Texas A&M University shows that feeding alfalfa to confined young Quarter horses with performance potential either prevented or was therapeutic in treating stomach ulcers.

Feeding grain, confinement, exercise and overall environmental stress factors are thought to cause ulcers, said Dr. Pete Gibbs, Extension horse specialist. Other studies have shown that horses will heal if provided less acidic diets.

The recent research project in the Department of Animal Science's equine science program was part of Travis Lybbert's master's degree thesis in collaboration with the College of Veterinary Medicine. Gibbs served on Lybbert's academic research committee.

In the research, 24 Quarter horses from 12 to 16 months old were separated into two treatment groups. One group was fed Bermuda grass hay and the other fed alfalfa hay to meet the 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 pastures 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, Gibbs said.

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, 0 signified no ulcers, with severity increasing to level 4.

Horse owners ? especially those with performance horses ? have one of two options, Gibbs said: 1) They can give their horses a pharmaceutical product that will decrease acid production, he said. Or, 2) they can manage horses' diets.

The second option does not stop acid production but offers buffering capabilities, Gibbs said. Further work is needed to look at horses with varying degrees of ulceration in order 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 said.

Until further research is done, he recommends, horses weighing between 1,000-1,300 pounds should be fed about 1 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, Gibbs said. 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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