The AAEP estimates that 60-90% of adult horses suffer from gastric ulcers. A number of things can cause equine ulcers: NSAIDS, stress, performance, and feed deprivation. The rate of gastric ulcers is much lower in horses allowed to graze 24/7. Slow feeding simulates the process of grazing. By introducing slow feeding into your horse's daily routine, you can help prevent ulcers and alleviate some bad behaviors as well.
The Culprit: Stomach Acid
Unlike humans, who produce stomach acid only when we eat, your horse is continuously producing acid. Regardless if his stomach is empty or full. When your horse is constantly nibbling on forage, the hay or grass soaks up much of the acid. In addition, your horse produces saliva while chewing. Saliva is a natural buffer or antacid that helps keep hydrochloric acid in check.
If your horse is fed 2 meals a day with nothing to munch on in between, his gastric acid is still churning and burning on an empty stomach. With no saliva or food matter to protect his stomach, the acid slowly eats away the stomach wall. If this continues daily, the stomach lining eventually becomes damaged and a sore emerges called a gastric ulcer.
In as little as 5 days, a gastric ulcer can develop and begin wreaking havoc on your horse's digestive system. Many times unwanted behaviors accompany an ulcer. In a desperate attempt to create saliva for relief, many horses will resort to chewing on anything they can find: bark, fence posts, barn wood etc.
Prevention: Slow Feeding
Studies show that horses that are allowed to graze continuously have much less stomach acidity compared to those that must fast between meals. Additionally, horses with diets high in roughage produce twice as much saliva as those on high grain diets. However, it can be challenging for many owners to continually throw out enough hay to last until the next feeding. Slow feeders have become a popular solution to this dilemma.
Slow feeding is the continuous in take of small amounts of hay through small holes in order to mimic grazing. In a natural environment, horses spend 18-20 hours a day grazing and can consume up to 1.5 lbs of forage an hour. The constant trickling in of forage keeps the horse's digestive tract well lined, naturally providing protection from harsh gastric acids. The goal of slow feeding is to imitate this crucial biological process by providing a constant supply of hay 24/7.
A slow feeder allows you to put out large amounts of hay (like a round bale) without worrying about waste or overeating. Slowing down consumption and eliminating hay waste means that forage is in front of your horse longer. By keeping your horse busy chewing, salvia production is steady and forage is consistently moving through his intestinal tract. Both of which are essential to ulcer prevention.