Electrolytes and their importance to horses

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The horse must replace lost fluid, but it needs to be done a little at a time and often.
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Intense training and hot climates can seriously impact any athlete’s hydration and electrolyte levels. Replenishing our equine athlete’s electrolyte levels can support them through training and recovery. A balanced electrolyte supplement may be one of your most valuable and understated tools to keep in your competition arsenal.

It’s electric!

Electrolytes are chemicals that when dissolved in a polar solvent such as water, form electrically charged particles called ions. The body of an average, 1000-pound horse consists of 65 percent water, making it the perfect environment for the electrolyte to perform its physiologic duties. Some of the functions electrolytes play a part in include, but are not limited to:

  • temperature control and fluid transport across cell membranes
  • muscle and heart contraction
  • respiration and digestion
  • ion transport and signal transduction
  • renal and neurological function
  • thought and memory processes
  • energy production and glucose metabolism
  • gathering information from all the senses and transporting those messages to the brain and muscles, enabling everyday function and the innate fight or flight responses of the horse.
Why are electrolytes important?

The horse’s body is a complex and carefully balanced system comprised of different types of cells, tissues and fluids that continuously direct an array of electrical impulses. The fuel for this fundamental life process lies within the electrolyte. When you think of a happy, healthy horse, he is one who is eating, drinking and passing manure appropriately. Electrolytes are essential to achieve and maintain this. The main electrolytes found in the horse’s body are sodium (Na), chloride (Cl), potassium (K), magnesium (Mg), calcium (Ca), hydrogen phosphate (HPO42) and hydrogen carbonate (HCO3).

One of the main functions of electrolytes is to regulate nerve and muscle function by transmitting electrical impulses. Optimal muscle health and appropriate neuron communication increase the performance potential of all horses.

With all the details of an electrolyte in mind, the key to maintaining a horse’s health and performance is achieving a balance. When there are imbalances, you run into trouble. Electrolytes are naturally excreted through sweating, feces and urine. However, if horses consistently excrete a high amount of electrolytes, there may be impacts on their health and performance.

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Signs that a horse may be deficient in electrolytes include:

  • poor performance and depression
  • dull coat and sunken eyes
  • eating dirt or other horses’ feces
  • tying up
  • weight loss or ulcers

Common causes of an electrolyte imbalance include:

  • dehydration
  • diarrhea
  • excessive sweating and strenuous exercise
  • insufficient consumption of bio-available minerals

With a proper, high-quality nutrition program, the majority of horses are able to replenish their routine electrolyte losses. However, this does not always hold true for the performance horse who has a more strenuous training schedule. Electrolytes are not easily replaced by diet alone and made readily accessible for the body to use as the performance horse’s training schedule demands. This is where electrolyte supplementation plays an imperative role.

Supplementing electrolytes

Horses are creatures of habit and thrive on consistency. Ideally, when supplementing electrolytes, you should give the same amount of powder or paste orally each day. This enables the horse to use what it needs to maintain homeostasis, and what is not needed will naturally be excreted. Electrolytes should never be “loaded,” as you may create an excessive imbalance and will inadvertently create an osmotic pull of water in the body to “go the wrong way,” causing dehydration. This principle of the osmotic pulling of fluids is why it is imperative to always give electrolytes with water and provide your horse with free-choice water.

Electrolyte supplements are an easy and cost-effective way to provide balance within the body. When choosing a supplement, select one that contains the essential electrolytes, and has low sugar content. Additionally, providing a free-choice salt block allows horses to instinctively re-balance their sodium and chloride levels.

Dr Meredith Mitchell Hustler
Dr Meredith Mitchell Hustler

The Palm Beach Equine Clinic‘s Dr Meredith Mitchell Hustler, of Ocean Grove, NJ, has grown up in the hunter/jumper community with a lifelong love for horses and equestrian sport. Hustler completed her undergraduate degree in Equine Science at Centenary University in Hackettstown, NJ. She then pursued her dream of becoming a veterinarian and graduated from Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine. During her clinical years Colorado State University, she became acupuncture certified in small animal, exotics and large animals. Her main interests in veterinary medicine are sports medicine, lameness, rehabilitation, acupuncture and alternative therapies. Outside of Palm Beach Equine Clinic she enjoys spending time with her husband, family, friends, and her three dogs.

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