Study Suggests Lucerne Might Buffer Gastric Acid Production and Prevent Ulcers and/Reduce Ulcer Severity

Study Suggests Lucerne Might Buffer Gastric Acid Production and Prevent Ulcers and/Reduce Ulcer Severity 03 January, 2012
– Dr Rensia Möller

If your horse has ulcers, giving him omeprazole is not the only thing you can do to help reduce the severity of the problem. Research from Texas A&M University US showed that feeding lucerne (or alfalfa as it is also known) to horses either prevent or was therapeutic in treating stomach ulcers.

Something in lucerne hay tends to buffer acid production, and further research is planned to investigate the exact mechanism of action.

Up to 90% of racehorses and more than 50% of arena performance horses have ulcers of varying severity. Ulcers can reduce a horse’s appetite and feed intake and cause weight loss, poor hair coat, colic and reduced performance. Feeding grain, confinement, intensive exercise, feeding infrequent large meals and overall environmental stress factors are thought to cause ulcers. It’s commonly thought that horses turned out on pastures are better off than those that are confined. However, if grass hay is the only hay they are fed, this research suggests that the horses might be more likely to get gastric ulcers as compared to horses fed lucerne hay.

The research project correlated type of hay to likelihood of ulcers. In the study, 24 Quarter Horse yearlings were separated into two treatment groups. One group was fed Bermuda grass (similar to Eragrostis curvula hay) and the other fed lucerne hay to meet daily roughage needs. A pelleted concentrate feed was fed to both groups at 15% of daily feed intake, and the yearlings received forced exercise 3 times a week using a horse exercise during the study.

The horses were examined internally with an endoscope at the beginning and end of 28-day trails. Ulcer scores were significantly lower for the Lucerne diet than for the Bermuda hay diet, and some horses in the Lucerne group with ulcer at the beginning of the study all improved their ulcers while on the Lucerne hay diet. Ulcers tended to be worse at the end of the Bermuda diet period. Another notable finding was that while ulcer scores didn’t change significantly from the end of the Bermuda diet to the end of the pastured washout period, they increased significantly from the end of the lucerne diet to the end of the washout period.

To apply the results of this study to their own management, horse owners with performance horses can give their horses a pharmaceutical product that will decrease acid production, especially with high grade ulceration, and/or they can manage their horses’ diets by feeding lucerne hay as an adjunct to antiulcer treatment for the control and prevention of ulcers.


The second option does not stop acid production but offers buffering capabilities. Further work is needed to look at horses with varying degrees of ulceration in order to better determine the full extent to which lucerne-based products might help from a feeding management standpoint.

Based on what we know right now, for horses that are kept in confinement, eating concentrate feed, and getting forced exercise, it makes sense to consider some lucerne as part of their diet.

Recommendation is that horses weighing about 500kg should ideally be fed about 500g of lucerne hay or chaff 30 minutes prior to a grain meal, or alternatively with a grain meal. This will not only benefit ulcer management, but also increase chewing time and thus increase saliva production which will further buffer excessive acid production in the stomach.

All the best
Rensia Möller

Article Brought to you by:

Dr Rensia Möller
Equine Veterinarian and International Nutritionist

Dr Rensia Möller obtained her Agricultural Science before graduating cum laude for her BScAgric Honours in Equine Nutrition and Genetics. She obtained her Masters in Equine Exercise Physiology and Equine Nutrition at the Onderstepoort Veterinary Faculty before completing her Veterinary Science degree at Onderstepoort cum laude.

She opened an equine veterinary and nutrition practice in 2002, as well as developing her own equine nutritional supplement brand in South Africa. She was appointed manager of Zabeel Feedmill in Dubai in 2006 where she custom designed professional performance equine feeds for various internationally acclaimed trainers including Mike de Kock, competing for the Dubai World Cup, with numerous race winners and success stories on these feeds. She also exclusively developed formulas for the world renowned Godolphin and Darley equine racing and breeding houses.

She is currently on board the dynamic Epol team, doing part-time consultancies for Epol clients, and passionately formulating and upgrading their range e.g. the newly launched long awaited mueslis and the international add-on of the Mike de Kock racing range. She is also available for private client consultancies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *