Calming Signals and Living on the Ulcer Continuum

Forty years ago, we didn’t know about ulcers. Some horses acted crazy and we tried to train them out of it. Colic was the number one killer of horses. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. Then around thirty years ago, we began to recognize and study ulcers. Research papers came out, scopes were invented, the connection between ulcers and colic studied. We got the harsh news that our management of horses, how we keep them, was killing them as surely as if we held a butterfly in a glass jar.

We also began to look back on horses we knew and felt hindsight guilt, the helpless feeling for good horses with obvious symptoms we didn’t know how to recognize before. It’s that guilt that spurs me to talk ulcers every chance I can. It isn’t me that brings the topic up all the time, it’s always a horse. They let you know, as plain as words on a page, if you listen to the horse’s body voice, his calming signals. I might meet the horse at a clinic because his human thinks the horse has a training issue, and they’re right. The horse can’t work because he is in pain. That’s when trainers become amateur vets. We are the ones who see the pain behaviors and if we are educated, we can help the horse. Bad behaviors are often a call for help and when the pain stops, the behavior stops. I’m not saying a trainer is qualified to diagnose; just that vets and trainers should both be concerned for the horse’s health first.

Research has yielded better management practices, supplements, and treatments for ulcers. For some horses, it’s as simple as getting a diagnosis and treatment. Horses will a previous ulcer history are likely to get them again. We estimate about 50%-90% of horses have ulcers, especially foals, but half the horses scoped and found with ulcers show no symptoms. Can we believe the numbers or are they higher? Some horses get treatment and the symptoms cease, while in some horses, ulcers can return immediately. In a minority of horses, the pain seems to never go away. I’ve worked with client horses whose pain behaviors have become chronic and unforgettable. I have a personal horse who has taken me to hell and back with disabling ulcers. Not to mention that ulcers leave scars, which are also painful. Some owners give up trying to help, claiming it’s their horse’s nasty personality. I don’t believe that.

A vet might suggest what I’m about to say is anecdotal. Interesting because I’ve been asking every vet I meet about their anecdotal thoughts about ulcers for years, “Since horses don’t have creative thought in the way we do, but do have a powerful memory, can a horse tell the difference between having an ulcer and the anxiety/pain of being in a similar situation and a previous painful experience?” Is it real or is it Memorex, as the old ad line goes. We have so little brain research that we’re left guessing. Before speaking at a recent conference, I went to listen to a university veterinarian talk about the current state of ulcer treatment. I asked my usual question and her answer was brand new. She said vets don’t think of curing ulcers so much as managing them. It felt affirming because in my work it looks like a continuum; at one end apparent pain-free peace and the other end, a thrashing colic episode. In the middle are a simple sour stomach, the memory of ulcers in the past, current ulcers, stoic horses hiding pain, ulcer scars, and whatever we still don’t know. Call it gastric discomfort but if we read calming signals, we understand that horse isn’t okay. Maybe the horse needs vet care and maybe he needs emotional support.

If training causes ulcers, can different training help them? Can compassionate training have a part in healing a horse? Can we find a way to use scientific research to understand horses both physically and emotionally; to deconstruct the big words in long sentences and extrapolate the facts into understanding that help the good horse in your barn? The damage of recurring ulcers leaves an emotional scar, but what methods of working with him can support him moving forward? From another perspective, it might seem that a horse is needing to heal an abusive past of aggressive training, but there is always a physical tie, perhaps lameness or the horse’s digestive system. Horses speak to us through their bodies.

Get your horse the physical help he needs; vet care, bodywork, a supportive diet, change his living environment. From the accepted procedures to the obscure methods, consider that as long as a horse’s head is connected to his body, there will a mental aspect involved in every physical challenge and fixing one doesn’t necessarily fix the other.

Is the hold-over pain a psychosomatic (literally, “mind-body”) condition? That would be a misunderstanding. Horses don’t make up the pain to evade work. Where a real physical problem exists, the psychological factors naturally contribute to the experience. Mental behavior and attitude make the pain better or worse. We can train in support of healing? The current cutting edge of horse training is the holistic marriage of new scientific information, updated psychology, and our ability to be vulnerable to growth.

The horse world is changing fast. We must ask the hard question, are we bending horses to our will and convenience, or are we helping horses gain strength and confidence by putting their welfare first? When we know more, we must do better.

Training traditions may be comfortable habits or create romantic images, but they may also be outdated. Hindsight guilt and hand-wringing don’t help. We owe it to the memory of those horses we innocently failed and to the future of our current horses, to not cling blindly to tradition. It’s up to us to invent new training methods that understand compassion and vulnerability are dynamic and powerful strengths.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward

Want more? Visit annablake.com to see our class schedule, online courses available on a revolving basis on Calming Signals, Affirmative Training, and More. You can book a live consultation or lesson, subscribe for email delivery of this blog, or ask a question about the art and science of working with horses. Join us in The Barn, our online training group with video sharing, audio blogs, live chats with Anna, and so much more.

Working with riders of any discipline and horses of any breed, Anna believes affirmative dressage training principals build a relaxed & forward foundation that crosses over all riding disciplines in the same way that the understanding Calming Signals benefits all equine communication.

Anna Blake

25 thoughts on “Calming Signals and Living on the Ulcer Continuum”

  1. Excellent post! We are learning so much and must keep learning as we care for our beloved horses. ❤️🐴🐎❤️ Thank you for helping to be their voice as we all learn their calming signals! Thank you for all you share, so much knowledge and insight. Thank you, thank you, thank you! ~Diana 💜

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  2. Yes, yes, yes! Thanks so much for writing this. Too may horses are living with real pain every day while their owners & riders think the horse needs more work, training, different bits, saddles, new approach, etc. Putting a horse in a stall with no turn-out except to be worked & ridden is so wrong! I realize it may not be possible for every horse to have access to turn-out every day but they need time to graze, walk, maybe socialize & just be a horse. Unfortunately, many will continue in the same way but perhaps the information about their lack of well-being will reach their owners, riders, trainers.

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  3. Anna,
    An extremely important piece — thank you. I see resistance to change almost daily. Growing up on ‘Thelwell’ books, I learned that you must always put your horse first. As my prior barn manager (for five years) always remarked: “There are 65 people here who will tell you what you must do with your horse.” A good lady, she only interfered if she saw dangerous activity and poor handling.
    For those, among us, who are the elders, we watch our horses carefully for signs of discomfort or pain, and we get vet checks twice annually (more if needed) for general health, as well as regular checkups/shots, etc.

    I noted my TWH (aged 24) was having issues with loose manure and acted immediately. The vet said he likely was responding to changes in the season or hay. The Thoroughbred had one instance of mild (gas) colic. We discussed their care and decided to move them to a new barn where the care is excellent. They are free to come and go from the barn as they desire but out as much as they wish. They have hay 24/7 (cut back in summer due to pasture), and plenty of fresh water. They are on a higher quality feed and the barn manager keeps the barn and stalls superbly clean. Both horses have improved, and the TWH is on a prebiotic daily. No more issues. They do not have the stress of travel and competition, as it’s a large farm with trails. However, the TWH is retired, and the Thoroughbred is only ridden twice a week. All other work is in-hand with some liberty work.
    They are both relaxed. There are better practices, and being stalled 12 hours a day is not one of them. I have noticed how much calmer and happier they are just being able to come and go from the barn as they please. This is a large factor in improving their lives and it’s having an important effect on their general health, fitness and bond with us.

    I would like to add that there is often an area that is overlooked: Teeth.

    One young lady at a prior barn was having difficulty with her horse, who would not work well and was considered to be having ‘behavioral issues’. The trainer pushed him as well, but the teen was also pulling sharply on his mouth when he refused to comply. We suggested checking his teeth. He was found to have a badly impacted tooth which had split into pieces that were (we later discovered from the equine dentist) impacted and irritating his gum. It took about 1-1/2 hours for the vet, dentist and my husband (an ER doctor) to extract all the pieces of the tooth. (David had special tools.) There was a lot of blood. His mouth was flushed out repeatedly, once all the fragments were removed. He was not ridden with a bit for one month. His mouth fully recovered and he was back in regular work, a happy horse. It’s sad that this situation had not been checked earlier and that he had to suffer so much pain.

    If you know your horse and you have a bond with him, you can detect any small changes in attitude or condition more easily, in most cases. Watch the manure carefully for signs of blood, when you clean the stall or if you see it outside. If there is blood, the manure will appear dark or black. A sign to call the vet right away. When you do in-hand and groundwork with your horse, you can detect changes much more easily.

    And, as Anna recommends all the time: watch for calming signals.

    I see so many horses ‘sold off’ due to even minor issues, as though they are broken machines. Embrace your beautiful horses for all they are (are we without issues?) and find out what work they really like to do. My Thoroughbred has never much wanted to work (especially on the track before I met him). He’s a horse who appears to enjoy play, do liberty work, take hand-walks to discover new pathways. And, twice a week, he will do his routine in the arena in good humored form, but always with one-eye on the grass outside, waiting….

    I am thankful for veterinary science that is helping us detect issues and keeping our horses healthier with longer lives.
    Thanks to all veterinarians, farriers and equine dentists everywhere for the amazing jobs they do.

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    • If only everyone who cares for their horses was this aware! When you spoke about your thoroughbred “never much wanting to work” – I remember so many years ago listening to a trainer (hunter/jumper) telling of watching her young horses being started to see what they liked & wanted to do. I was so impressed hearing that at the time & even more so, thinking back on it.
      When & if humans finally treat other species as “other nations” rather than creatures we dominate – this world will be a much better & certainly more compassionate place.

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  4. I am cautiously optimistic that the ulcer meds, Daily Gold, alfalfa mush and affirmative training are making a difference for our good boy, Shawnee. I think about ulcers constantly: for this boy, for the ones who were subjected to my ignorance. Thank you for calling it innocent: it was, and it helps to sweeten the bitter taste of guilt. I think of my childhood self and anxiety-driven stomach damage. Even when I had healed the remembered pain came back in stressful situations. Why wouldn’t it for our horses, who forget nothing? Thank you for being an ulcer crusader, Anna. Your words inspire me to open my mouth when I used to remain quiet.

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  5. I got my boy the year after he had almost died from complications of an ulcer. I gave him months to settle (ex-wildie) and as he began to trust me I’d do more with him – groundwork, brushing, leading from behind, whatever. Then one day I found him “hiding” behind some trees. He wouldn’t come out of his own volition and if he knew I had seen him he’d change position so he was better hidden. It took me over a week to figure out he was in pain and as I researched I learned it was likely ulcers. I used BioSponge and a product from Herbs for Horses and his behaviour returned to normal in about a week.

    True is on Daily Gold for the rest of his life, and is holding steady a year later. Using the knowledge you have shared, Anna, allows me to have meaningful conversations with him and let’s me know if and when I’ve gone too far.

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  6. Hi Anna
    Thanks for such a straight post that advocates for the horses. I would like to include hoof pain that horses stoically compensate for years.

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  7. I appreciate your advocating for horses with pain so much!

    I have a question. In your experience, have you seen any connections between hormonal changes in filly and mare’s lives and ulcers? Our mare has gone through a few “personality” changes over the years, the most dramatic between 1.5-2yrs old, and another as she recently turned 16. The early change was during a period when I was going through some serious health challenges, and I’d read about ulcers and my then vet was wonderful about listening to my concerns and agreed to prescribe meds without requiring a scoping, and Raziel recovered her sweetness within a short time. I’ve always watched for similar changes and every so often put her on Daily Gold to get over a stressful time.

    Almost a year ago, we lost her “uncle” Harry to COPD. Both Raziel and Harry’s bestie Red were hit really hard by his loss, and again I put them on Daily Gold which seemed to really help. At our last trimmer appointment Raziel was difficult enough that I was worried someone might get hurt, so we did her hind feet and quit. (Yes, she prefers her hind feet first, has all her life. ) Nothing has changed in terms of feed, care, trimmer… nothing we can come up with. We have another trimmer appointment this Sunday. I prophylactically began Raziel on Daily Gold last Sunday, and am hoping that will help. But I’m wondering, could ulcers be hormonally triggered?

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    • On one hand, I think everything is related to everything. Ulcers frequently have something ‘underneath’ them, another issue. The most underdiagnosed condition in horses these days is ovarian cysts. I’ve read that climate change is impacting heat cycles as well. For the farrier, again, so many possibilities… I haven’t read about ulcers being hormonally triggered… but stress is a factor in ulcers and that is a fairly gray area. I just don’t know, but I’d keep watching and see how it all continues. Good luck Sunday, and thanks, Shelley

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  8. Thank you, Anna, for continuing to write about ulcers and pain and the importance of being alert and helping our horses with their pain. It seems nobody ( including me not long ago) wants to hear their horse might have ulcers. Your recommendations have helped Zen Bear and myself so much over the last few years.

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      • I think some folks just don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of treating ulcers ! Expensive and complicated in so many cases. ..and yes feels like a personal failing perhaps if one’s horse has ulcers?

        One horse friend says nothing makes her more angry than for someone to point out a physical issue her horse might be having.

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  9. As usual Anna, you keep us all looking for better answers and new ways of thinking, thank you! I speak often to my students of how little we used to understand and manage. I’m with you on suspecting or protecting against tummy troubles when situations change. Veterinary research has produced so much new awareness – until 15 years ago I’d never recognized kissing spine or, sadly way too common in our area, EPM or Lyme. I teach several pro riders who often think they need better training ideas from me if one of their rides is getting the better of them. Frequently I remind them that both they and the horse are quite clever and capable and they’ve previously demonstrated great rapport and teamwork so something has changed. For these partnerships I suggest questioning medical more than the horses mindset and consulting their vet. Ulcers are a frequent find! Next is the riders mindset (my specialty). I’m constantly learning and so always appreciate the wisdom you share here!

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  10. Gosh I love this. I have been on a journey with my dear arab who I found had terrible Bleeding ulcers…despite being in a herd at pasture and no grain high forage diet…. We treated them rescoped, no improvement, treated again, small improvement, readjusted supplements and i have learned his signs so well over the year I can predict scope results extremely accurately . Last scoping I said he should be ulcer free, he’s finally eating, he is lying down in paddock with the herd to sleep, he is happy in his work . I was right and he’s ulcer free! But he requires ongoing treatment to keep them in check, one day off medication and he tells me he is sore again…

    Boz is going blind – lost one eye and now cataracts in his only eye left – and now I find that what I learned about his ulcers is helping me manage his transition to darkness… he is showing me where his fears are as clearly as he showed pain from ulcers. The journey is ongoing and I don’t know where it will end or if I will be enough to help him through new territory – but each day we grow closer and I’m so grateful for learning to read his signals because he now has the confidence in me to understand.

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