Normally, if you have thought much about ulcers and your horses that have them or might have them, you have come to the understanding that the major triggering factors are the stressors in their daily life. The same stressors do not necessarily have the same effects for every horse…some horses are not stressed by the same things that wreak havoc in other horses. They are individuals with different tolerances for discomfort. Kind of like people.
Normally, one would think that if the life of the horse has had a combination of stress inducing factors like extended periods of poor shoeing, limited turnout, say, only 30 mins day of solitary time in a 15 foot round pen in the hot sun with no shade while aggravated by serious biting bugs that quickly create mental stress, extended periods of isolation from other equines and humans while stabled, poor bitting and ill-fitting tack choices, poor dentition, no free foraging, uneducated riding or driving….things like that…. It would be logical to conclude these things would likely induce ulcers in the horse which in turn might explain his mouthiness, his aggressive eating habits…wolfing down his food in an effort to protect himself from ulcer pain, windsucking when his tack is put on (swallowing air in an attempt to relieve ulcer pain) in anticipation of stomach pain, his general agitation and uneasiness on cross ties, his lack of relaxation, focus or enthusiasm …even refusals …at work.
But what if he experienced this for a long time, like maybe the last 10 years or so? What if these things became what he came to understand as ‘normal’? In other words, this has become…. just the way life is? His world?
From an evolutionary strategy point of view, animals that can most successfully mask, guard, and steel themselves against the visible expression of discomfort and pain have a better chance to survive. We know that prey animals that exhibit pain are the preferred targets for predators. They are easier to identify in the herd and catch. Their very survival depends on how well they can hide any infirmities. Survival is a strong motivator to work through pain. In my experience, the good horses do just that. The very act of hiding pain compounds the issue because as a result they do not use their body the way it was intended to move. Muscles atrophy or get even more sore, bone structures become distorted, maybe even arthritic by moving in a guarded and protective way.
And what if, in your well intentioned effort to make his life better, you changed much of his life experience at once by giving him a very good, supportive hoof trim so his natural resting stance was now contributing to overall comfort and health rather than to a forced contortion of where his muscles, ligaments and skeleton want his body to be naturally?
What if he was turned out and moving 8-12 hrs. a day with another horse (they are herd animals!) on a decent green pasture, protected with shade and wind screens, perhaps a fly mask and bug spray?
What if he was working with kinder bits, a gentler, more understanding and educated hand in a relaxed frame with better fitting tack, with a good dental treatment, good chiropractic evaluation and treatment, maybe even some acupuncture to address his long standing guarding and protecting of muscle pain and energy blockages …lots of quality grooming time with humans…….things like that?
We tend to think the extremely poor previous treatments of the horse prior to the introduction of these kinds of changes for the better as prime stressors that trigger ulcers.
But consider this: Would the cumulative effect of all these dramatic changes…improvements…themselves, be enough to trigger ulcers?
Would the sum of these changes from what the horse had come to understand as ‘normal’ be enough to themselves trigger ulcers…even though we would all agree they were changes for the better????
What if we also add, on top of these changes, the changes of just moving to a new barn with new routines and unfamiliar daily care by humans he does not know, different weather, different tasting hay, grain, supplements, even water, on top of all that??
My point is: we all basically agree that stress is an ulcer trigger. What about the stress of *change* itself? Even if it is what we, as experienced horse keepers, would consider changes for the better? Do we need to maybe go a little slower for some horses, particularly the sensitive ones, when they are rescued them from the traumas of their previous life?
And when we recognize the changes that should be made, what is the priority in which they should be made? We do not generally have control over some of them. We can't change the water back to what he had when he was living, say 500 miles away. The stabling we have is different from where he came from. Not much we can do about that. The pasture we have is all that is available. It is what it is. Should we let him stand on his miserable shoeing a while longer while we make the other changes just so we don't make too many changes at once? Should we turn him out in a tiny round pen because that is what he got used to while we have a beautiful, shaded paddock right next door? The rehabilitation path may not be as obvious and simple as it first appears.
Maybe it is more stressful than we think to make all those changes at once even though the changes will, in the long run, all greatly improve his life.
Maybe we need to take more time. Maybe…. not so fast.