Rising temperatures this summer often result in sweaty horses and ponies after those longer rides, competitions and when travelling too. It is important to ensure then, that our beloved friends stay fully hydrated at all times. In order to achieve this, both water and electrolytes are needed, as providing greater quantities of water alone will simply cause the body to excrete the excess, as it is not able to be retained. I often hear of horse owners adding salt to their horses feeds, however many are unsure how to do this correctly.
Electrolytes are mineral salts which, when dissolved in water, become electrically charged particles called ions. Sweating causes the loss of electrolytes, in particular sodium, chloride and potassium but also magnesium and calcium in smaller amounts. Electrolytes are extremely important, required for numerous functions including muscle contractions and transmission of nerve impulses. Imbalances could therefore lead to conditions including heat stress, fatigue, synchronous diaphragmatic flutter (thumps) and tying up. Free access to a salt lick is generally more than sufficient for horses at rest/light work and with suitable rest, most losses can be replaced over time with eating and drinking. For horses in harder work however, sweating on a regular basis, additional support is advisable. 1-3 tablespoons of Table Salt (sodium chloride) depending on sweating rate may be sufficient for horses receiving >1% of their bodyweight in forage per day, as forage provides potassium. Horses sweating heavily, especially when on restricted forage diets, may also need additional potassium therefore adding 0.5-1.5 tablespoons of Lo-Salt (sodium chloride & potassium chloride) per day on top, will be beneficial. Salt can be added directly to feed, or diluted in water, however additional water must always be offered alongside both methods. Try to ensure that horses are familiar with drinking solutions before using them at an event and if adding to feed, do so after they have started drink to prevent further dehydration. It is not possible to ‘pre-load’ with electrolytes but try to avoid dehydration pre-exercise by allowing free access to water and forage beforehand. Although many believe allowing horses to drink immediately after exercise will cause colic, this is in a misconception and withholding water will delay rehydration. In fact, allow your horse to drink small amounts for the first 30 minutes and ad-lib once they have cooled down fully. To allow your horse to cool down efficiently, walk them round until their pulse and respiration rate have returned close to normal rates and sponge/hose them down if required. It may seem obvious, but whenever possible try to tie them up in shady areas if waiting around at shows and make sure water is available at all times.
As an alternative, look for a specialist electrolyte supplement containing sodium, potassium and chloride. Supplements will often have dextrose and sucrose added also to help improve palatability. This can also support glycogen recovery, Glycogen is stored glucose, and it can take up to 72hours for levels to be restored following intense exercise. If competing, ensure supplements are suitable to be used under FEI rules covered by BETA NOPS. Care should always be taken however when using pastes and syringes particularly during exercise. High concentrations of salt will result in water from the body being drawn to the digestive system leading to further dehydration. Syringes and pastes should also be avoided for those at risk of or suffering from gastric ulcers.
This summer when packing yourself off with bottles of water and sun cream ready to brave the heat, always remember to think about your horse too. Providing sufficient water and electrolyte support will help ensure that they stay hydrated and if you are unsure about the level of support they need, get in touch with a nutritionist.