Oral Ulcers in Horses

Updated on September 4, 2019
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Since I was a little girl my passion, after writing, has been horses. Learning and sharing everything I know with you here. Happy Trails!

Here's a good example of an ulcer. If you look closely you can still see some of the foxtails are still sticking out of the ulcer.
Here's a good example of an ulcer. If you look closely you can still see some of the foxtails are still sticking out of the ulcer. | Source

Symptoms of Oral Ulcers in Horses

If you are concerned that your horse may have oral ulcers there are clear symptoms he/she indeed has them. Beyond the symptoms listed below you should have a thorough look at the hay your horse is eating. Sometimes you can find the culprit in their hay. If not, here are symptoms to look for:

  • Your horse is interested at feeding time, yet stops eating soon after he starts.
  • They have their mouth slightly open or lower lip hanging down.
  • A very common symptom is drooling!
  • Are you seeing small piles of feed uneaten near the feeding area?
  • Is the mouth and/or lips sensitive to touch?
  • You can see visible ulcers inside the mouth especially along the lower lip canal.

These are the symptoms of undesirable grasses in hay. When the hay being fed to your horse has an overabundance of undesirable grasses, your horse will develop red, open ulcers in his mouth. These open ulcers will have the culprit still embedded in them often.

Ripgut (Bromus diandrus), Foxtail (Hordeum Murinum), and Cheatgrass (Bromus Tektorum) are just a few common and extremely problematic grasses within the US. There are too many variations of undesirable grasses to list them all, but these are the most notorious ones, especially the Ripgut. It has been known to perforate a cows gut when eaten.

The Ripgut grass was the culprit in our situation, so the photos and videos you find in this article are of that grass.

Ripgut, Foxtail, Cheatgrass Distribution


You Need to Intervene (Help)

A horse cannot remove these undesirable grasses from their mouth. These grasses have spines on them pointing in one direction, in. When their feed has a lot of them, they build up in the lower lip, piercing the tender flesh, embedding themselves in their lip. Once one has penetrated the flesh, it's really easy for more to pile into the hole. One after another, as the horse picks up his hay with his lips, the undesirable grasses drop off their spiny arrows, that in turn, they embed themselves into his lips.

The horse will continue to eat until he is in so much discomfort he cannot pick up another mouthful of the hay. At this point, it is too painful to hold his lips together and swallow his saliva. He will then stop eating, stand with his lips apart, drooling profusely. The drool will sometimes extend from his lip all the way to the ground.

Ripgut | Source
Foxtail | Source
Cheatgrass | Source

Know Your Foxtail Grasses!

Type of Grass
Commonly Found
Foxtail or Wild Barley (Hordeum Murinum)
Springtime: Green and supple. Summer: Dry and brittle.
Roads, paths, "weedy" areas
Ripgut Grass (Bromus Diandrus)
Springtime: Green and somewhat supple. Summer: Dry, dangerous for animals if ingested.
Grassy Hillsides
Cheatgrass (Bromus Tektorum)
Same as Ripgut; Sprintime: Green and somewhat supple. Summer: Dry, but not as dangerous as ripgut grass.
Grassy Hillsides, desert areas

What You Can Do

You can be a diligent horse (or any grass-eating animal) owner and pay attention to what is fed to him. These grasses start growing in the early spring. They are soft and supple at this time, but as the summer months dry out the grasses, they become dangerous. If you know the dangerous grasses, you will be able to avoid or reduce your animal's exposure to them.

Helping Your Horse

When you notice your horse is exhibiting these symptoms, you need to take action to relieve his pain. Some horses don't mind having a person touch his mouth, and others aren't as easy. Patience is the key here. Even the most docile horse in the barn can become resistant when human fingers are probing his tender mouth full of stickers—it hurts!

Have someone help you; it's just easier that way. Put a halter on him so he can't walk away before you're done. Gently put your thumb into the corner of his lower lip and slide it down until you can lift the lip away from the teeth. His natural saliva will help with sliding your finger. Don't put your finger between the teeth at or beyond the occlusion, or you may very well be accidentally bitten.

Now that you have the lip pulled down, look closely at the ulcers. Are there little white or yellow things sticking out of them or lying in them? These are the undesirable grasses like foxtails, ripgut, and cheatgrass embedded into the ulcer. With tweezers or your bare fingers, pull them out. Keep picking them out until you can't see any more.

Check the front of his mouth and the other side. If one side has an ulcer, the other side probably does too. After you have picked it all out, prepare a bottle of warm saltwater and spray it gently into his mouth on the sores. This will help with the healing process.

Alfalfa Cubes

I've used alfalfa cubes successfully. They provide all the nutrients of alfalfa, and some brands even have added nutrients. Alfalfa cubes are especially helpful if you have to feed in a windy area. They won't blow away as alfalfa flakes do. I will wet the cubes before feeding them to the horses and make sure the horses have plenty of water.

Ripgut in the Hay
Ripgut in the Hay

Can You Identify the Foxtail in the Left Photo?


Horses are very resilient, especially with oral problems. Don't be surprised if you check the next day and the sores are halfway healed or more! If you find they are not healing by week's end, then there may be a stubborn foxtail embedded or another issue that needs veterinarian attention.

The short video below shows how to open a horse's lips. It also includes still shots of the ulcers at the end of the video.

Short Video of Ulcers in the Mouth

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2013 Joanna


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