I don’t usually say it that bluntly but I wanted to get your attention. I need to make a payment on a debt. Usually I start with the term sour stomach. No one likes to hear ulcers because it opens the flood gates of guilt, blame and angst. Not to mention the check book. But that’s about us, can we talk horse? May I explain my thinking?
First: Horses were never designed to live at our convenience. They have a prickly digestive system that runs best on grazing 24/7 in nice green pastures. Frankly, they weren’t designed to be ridden either. Big bodies on small feet, and the task of balancing a rider on their back is a big physical challenge to them, one we humans love to underestimate.
Horses have another huge weakness. They are all very sensitive. We like to think some horses are more sensitive than others, but each individual horse feels stress and responds differently. Some will shut down while others wear their feelings on their sleeves and be reactive, but make no mistake. All horses are sensitive victims of stress and worry. Ironically these same qualities of sensitivity make them capable of immense understanding and partnership- meaning this ‘weakness’ is something we love about them.
Counter-balance against all those negatives and a few dozen more too complex or long-winded to list here, this one princely gift: Horses volunteer. It defies common sense, but horses (and dogs) choose to be with us. I’m skeptical that men domesticated them, I think it happened more like this, (read here).
When horses lay their precious gift of trust freely, prey to predator, into our hands, we owe it to them to do our very best. For all the ways horses lift us and carry us through life, we owe a debt. For the time it was within his right to buck us off and not look back, but instead he was patient, we owe a debt. And most of all, for the simple joy of being with an animal of such strength, beauty and intellect, we owe a debt. If horses don’t take your breath away every day, then you’re doing it wrong.
I think by now we have all heard the ulcer statistics: 93% of horses on the track, 60% of performance horses, over 57% of foals during weaning, the list goes on. The chances are that at some point in most horse’s lives, ulcers were there. With these numbers, why do we resist the possibility instead of embrace the chance to help them?
Here is the statistic that we should be the most concerned about: Of the horses scoped and diagnosed with ulcers, 50% showed no symptoms- silent ulcers. There’s a well-documented connection between ulcers and colic, the leading cause of premature equine death. (read here- I owe this lovely, sad mare a debt.)
If a horse is struggling with behaviors we don’t like, it should always the first step to rule out health issues, and I am not sure, short of a costly diagnosis, that we can ever rule out ulcers conclusively. Sometimes horses communicate pain but we hear it as bad behavior instead. While we should never condone bad behavior, how else do they have to get our attention when pain persists?
In the face of these numbers, as a trainer I would rather err on the side of caution. More than that, since people frequently hire trainers when they run into problems with their horses, I think trainers have a responsibility to be especially knowledgeable about ulcers. The first ‘diagnosis’ might be a suggestion from us.
Am I some sort of wing nut who thinks all horses should be returned to ‘nature’? Nope, my Grandfather Horse would be dead in a day. Does this mean that every horse needs a $1000.00 course of prescribed medication? Nope. The goal is to save horses and money with some information that too many of us take for granted.
Horse owners do need to educate themselves. I have an EGUS/ulcer primer on my website (here) but it’s just a start. There is so much good information available and it should be required knowledge, just like hoof care or first-aid. Good horsemanship always means putting your horse’s well-being above your personal convenience.
Secondly, we need to manage their care as naturally as possible. Free choice hay is a good start. Skipping sweet feed is close behind. If your horse needs some extra help, the market for supplements has quadrupled in the last few years. Many are inexpensive and there are lots of holistic products.
Finally, who knows your horse better than you? Horse owners are always looking to improve communication and partnership with their horses. If that is going to happen, we have to listen to them, even when they tell us something we don’t want to hear.
I had a young horse who was very food aggressive but instead of listening to him, I trained the behavior out of him. The ulcers got worse, but he was more polite when I fed him. I’m still apologizing. Even the best training cannot heal a medical condition, those are two separate things. He taught me to listen all horses better, I owe him a huge debt.
Do you have a gelding who makes faces or sticks his tongue out? Or a mare who is always pinning her ears? Are they physically anxious or uncomfortable? Or maybe just not the happy, willing horse you remember? Respect your horse: listen closely and don’t let his behavior distract you from his message. You owe him the benefit of the doubt.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.