Saturday, May 16, 2009

On Putting the Horse First, and Ulcers

With the benefit of hindsight, I think it was not a good decision to switch Noble and Joe's stalls.  I have had Noble now for almost 12 years, and this is the second barn he has been at with me.  In all that time he had only been in 2 stalls - the last, at our barn, for 8 years.  In trying to be accommodating to a fellow boarder, Joe's owner, I didn't sufficiently consider the interests of my horse.  Noble was perfectly happy where he was - the change we made was not to fix a problem the horses had.  Of course people move horses from barn to barn, and from stall to stall, but one of the big advantages of our barn is that it is very quiet - even the more nervous horses seem to settle down once they're there - and there's very little fuss or bother.  With a young horse, or one that's going to go out into the world to show or trail ride, a little changing up from time to time, which may introduce some stress and provide training or learning opportunities, is in order.  Noble is 29, retired and never has to go anywhere now, so there's no reason for me to introduce stress into his life.

Noble and Joe were both initially unhappy about the change - nervous, fretful and convinced that the people who put them in the wrong stalls had made a mistake.  It's taken a number of days for them to finally settle in to their new locations.  Now that they're more settled, we'll leave them where they are rather than switching back.  I also believe that the change was part of what caused the mare wars between Lily and Dawn that I posted about several days ago - the upheaval agitated Lily, who then upset Dawn . . .  Let that be a lesson to me to remember that, just because I have the power to do something with or to my horses, doesn't mean that I should if it isn't in the horse's best interests.

On a different topic, I mentioned a while ago that I thought Maisie might have ulcers.  Over time, I've learned to examine problem behaviors my horses exhibit in a somewhat different way than I used to.  Before I learned better, I used to think if one of my horses did something "bad" - bucking, rearing, pawing in the stall, head tossing, refusal to work in the way I wanted - it was just a matter of "making" the horse do the right thing by using whatever training methods I could, including punishment and gadgets.  Now, whenever I'm confronted with an undesirable behavior, whether in the stall, on the ground or under saddle, I first try to eliminate all physical issues first before approaching the problem as a training issue.   Sometimes horses are trying to say something (very loudly since we don't hear very well) with these behaviors.  These physical issues can include skeletal/muscular issues that can be fixed or at least improved with treatments such as chiropractic, ulcers (more on this below), diet issues (horses that are getting the wrong foods - either in terms of quality, composition or amount), saddle fit issues (remember how it felt the last time you wore a pair of shoes that didn't fit?), dental issues, fitness or conformation issues, etc.  Only after all of these have been seriously considered and fixed or improved where necessary do I move on to training.  Then it's a matter of finding a way to work through the training issue that remains (sometimes it goes away altogether when the physical issue is fixed).

I was amazed to discover how many horses have ulcers.  Read your horse magazines - there have been articles about it.  Untreated ulcers are painful, and can produce behavioral issues.  This was brought home recently to me by a horse my 19 year old daughter owns (not at our barn).  She got this horse for free, other than the cost of a vet check and transportation, because the horse, a 10 year old Oldenburg mare with excellent bloodlines, had become dangerous to handle.  The mare was no longer rideable.  The mare could not be touched, even by a person she knew - she would scream, strike, bite and kick.  Farrier visits were out of the question - her hind legs could not be handled at all - so her feet were a mess.  She could not be groomed or blanketed, and had developed a bad case of rain rot.  Vet visits were a nightmare.  She needed serious dental work.  She also needed chiropractic, but would not tolerate the chiropractor touching her.  And even worse, at feeding time she became dangerously aggressive and would viciously attack the person bringing feed - to feed her you had to carry weapons - a stick or whip - and even then you were at risk of injury.  Her owners were planning to euthanize her.

Once my daughter got her, she first worked on making sure she could feed the mare without being injured, and was able to enforce limits so the mare would stay back from the feeding area until permitted to approach.  My daughter still had to be very careful - the mare still wanted to attack.  She had the mare sedated, had initial work done on her teeth and had her scoped for ulcers.  Lo and behold, the mare had extremely severe ulcers, which must have been causing her severe pain, particularly at feeding time!  Her aggression at feeding time was due to the severe pain that the approach of food caused her - I expect the pain was basically driving her crazy.  And then to top it off, she was punished for the behaviors that occurred when she was in pain, probably causing her to associate people with her pain.  No wonder she wanted to kill everybody!

The mare has been on the prescription generic version of Gastrogard for about 5 months now.  Her behavior has improved enormously - she's gradually learned that everything doesn't hurt and that people don't cause her pain.  One by one, my daughter has been able to reintroduce her to normal horse care routines, and she can now tolerate the vet, farrier and chiropractor, as well as grooming and blanketing.  My daughter first started working her in the round pen, first working her from outside the pen for safety.  The mare has progressed well and my daughter is now starting to ride her.  Much credit to my daughter and her careful and slow work!  I look forward to what they may do next - the mare knows how to jump from her prior life and my daughter hopes to start showing her soon.

Now that's certainly a dramatic example of the problems ulcers can cause.  Now in Maisie's case, the behavior she was exhibiting at feeding time was "body-slamming" - she would pin her ears and slam her whole body against the stall walls - and kicking the stall walls.  It was bad enough that we had to reinforce her stall walls with heavy plywood.  But - and here's the clue - this behavior only happened at morning feeding, not in the PM.  In the morning, as soon as I walked in the barn, she would start, and would continue until I gave her some hay.  In the old days, I probably would have yelled at her or saved her hay to last ("to teach her a lesson").  Thankfully, now I think about the behavior instead.  It was interesting that the behavior occurred when Maisie's stomach was empty, in the morning, and not in the evening when she had a full stomach from grazing.  In light of my daughter's experience with her mare, I thought - ulcers?  I could have had her scoped, but decided to try an over-the-counter ulcer remedy - U-Gard - for a period of time to see if it made a difference.  If she had mild ulcers, that might do the trick.  If she had severe ulcers, I would probably still have to have her scoped and then have my vet prescribe Gastrogard or the generic equivalent.

Well it's now about 30 days since we started the U-Gard.  Maisie no longer body-slams or kicks at morning feeding time; she just stands calmly and comfortably until I feed her.  When I exhaust the current container, I'm going to stop the treatment for a bit to see if the behaviors recur or not, and go from there.

I've certainly learned a lot from my daughter's experience and my experience with Maisie.  Ulcers are now on my list of possible physical issues that may need to be looked at before a behavior is deemed a training issue.


  1. Good for you and your daughter, you saved that horses life!

  2. Di - all compliments go to my daughter - she lives in a different state right now and I've actually not met the mare yet - but hope to soon as they are moving nearby in a month or so.

  3. Hi Di - just popped along to say welcome to Danni's blog with his growin family!

  4. I commend your daughter on figuring out the problem and helping her mare. She sounds a lot like my daughter. I've also learned like you have over the years to look for a physical problem first and go from there on to behavioral problems.

    Funny you should mention ulcers as a possible cause of behavioral issues. We are basically at our wits end with one horse Donnie who goes ballistic whenever a girth or anything goes around his middle. He's had every test under the sun and has a mild case of pssm, and is being treated for that at present with diet and exercise. On Tuesday we took him to be scoped for ulcers and he had a few minor ones and some scarring from previous ones. He is being treated with GastroGuard presently. I truly think this is the last possible test we can do on him. Since he was definitely abused before we got him a lot of this may be a training issue too. He's just a enigma wrapped in a mystery at present.Even though we'll keep trying to help him, he may remain a pasture puff for the rest of his life and we're okay with that too. We just wish there was something that could be done to make him more comfortable with himself.

  5. Grey Horse - does your horse have any scarring or prior injuries anywhere around the girth or back area? Scar tissue can irritate or trap nerves, and adhesions can also cause pain. Just a thought.

  6. Kate,
    Thanks for the suggestion, but he doesn't have any scarring. If you're at all interested in his whole story I did a few posts on him and his problems. The posts are in the January 2009 archives and it's in three parts. I hope one day we can figure out what is wrong with him.Thanks for trying to help, I appreciate it.

  7. Jason is constantly having to address the problem of ulcers at boarding barns. The horses are often given their last hay of the day at around 6pm and then nothing until the next morning. By the way I'm not suggesting you do that at your barn, it is just something he has to deal with a lot at boarding facilities due to their schedules.

    He is kind of a nazi about forage here. All stalled horses are given double hay at about 10pm, and if there isn't hay left over in the morning you will be getting a lecture from Jason about tossing more hay at night feeding! Thankfully most of the horses live outside and have hay/grass 24/7 so we only have to do 10pm hay for a few horses!

    Your daughter sounds like a wonderful horsewoman, clearly she has learned a lot from mom! Kudos to her for saving this mare. It must be a wonderful feeling for you to see what a great horsewoman she has become.

    We've gotten a few big time show horses here for retirement that were trainwrecks when they arrived. So many issues from behavioral issues, health issues, issues from chronic pain, bad nutrition, poor farrier work, etc. And of course these horses had the "best" vets, farriers, trainers, etc. It is so satisfying to turn these horses around and help them become happier and healthier.

  8. Hi Kate,
    A pretty good article from on ulcers:
    I've mentioned our mare Alyiah in the past, and we've learned her 'signs' when it flares up . . . certainly ulcers are something we suspect if there is a behavior change for no obvious reason.

  9. Hi Kate,
    Tell your daughter nice job on that mare.....most would be too frightened to try to address the problems.....she must really love her. You've given me some food for thought with the Ulcer mare continues to kick at her stall (even with kick chains on) mainly in the morning. She's 16 now and basically my pet (I do ride her but not hard) and has a small goose egg on her (right below her hock in the back) leg. The vet said it's up to us to have it biopsied to see what it is but he thinks it is just scar tissue that has does go up and down (winter smaller) and does not think it's related to her kicking. It does not seem to bother her at all not lame or anything....but last winter I noticed her leg twitching when I had her tacked up and she is cinchy when brushing her barrel and with tightening the saddle.....hmmm. The vet told us obviously that it was our choice but he said he would just leave it alone if it wasn't bothering her......would be expensive to remove. Great insights here. Hey thanks for becoming a follower of my blog too!

  10. Ulcers create all kinds of behavioral issues. Scoping does not always find all the ulcers either. I checked with my vet about treating my horse for suspected ulcers and he said the omeprazole (Gastrogard, Ulcergard) would do no harm, so it was worth it....however super expensive.

    If anyone needs ulcer treatment at a more moderate price, I have some information. Email me at and I will be glad to help you.

    After treatment, my horse's personality changed completely. At his final show of the season he was so relaxed I had all I could to to encourage him to go...this from a potentially explosive character in the warm up arena.

  11. Another good post, thanks!
    I will keep it in mind in the future.

  12. Huge congratulations to your daughter - she must be a wonderful horsewoman. I think it's really important to remember that horses are animals first and foremost - being "bad" or "naughty" isn't really in the range for horses, because they don't think like we do. I've had my mare five years and it's only in the last year I've started listening to her instead of trying to drown her out. She is an absolute pleasure to handle these days!

    I'll be interested to see whether the behaviours return when Maisie comes off her ulcer treatment.

  13. Your daughters mare is lucky she found her and is so patient. It's such a nice story to hear.

    You are right, there are so many horses with ulcers. My horse is on Ranitidine in times of stress. It is used to decrease the amount of stomach acid produced. This aids in the treatment of ulcers that are present and helps prevent ulcer formation. It is also used in the treatment of gastritis (inflammation of the stomach) and esophagitis (inflammation of the esophagus).

  14. Wow -- this is a wonderful story, and a lesson to anyone who tends to blame the horse for problem behaviors or considers horses like your daughter's a lost cause. Kudos to her for giving that mare another chance at life!


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