What are Electrolytes for Horses?
Essentially electrolytes are minerals that form salts. These salts dissolve in the horse’s blood stream. They are necessary for nerve function, muscle function, digestion, nutrient absorption, brain function. They are, in fact, responsible in some way for all of the chemical reactions and pathways that sustain life.
The actual electrolytes are: calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, chloride, bicarbonate and phosphate.
When Do Horses Need Added Electrolytes?
Grass, hay and commercial feeds all contain electrolytes, usually enough to maintain normal horses that aren’t sweating over long periods or in intensive exercise. A normal diet will provide adequate amounts of all the electrolytes except sodium and chloride… salt. Ad lib access to a salt lick is all that is required for horses in low levels of work and horses are quite efficient at using a salt lick. Adding a small amount of table salt to the feed will also address any shortages of sodium and chloride.
Electrolyte supplements are balanced so that the electrolytes are available in the ratios that the horse will need after sweating, and not just sodium and chloride.
(Remember: Oats are low in calcium and have an upside down calcium: Phosphorus ratio for horses and should be fed with a balancer)
In simplest terms, a horse needs extra electrolytes when they are sweating over a period of time. The typical image of a sweating horse is the racehorse or eventer after competition. Endurance horses produce sweat for prolonged periods and will need the most supplementation. Transport can also cause horses to sweat, particularly in warm weather and even standing in the horsebox on a hot day can cause a horse to sweat enough to warrant extra electrolytes. Older horses, particularly those suffering with Cushing’s disease may sweat profusely during warm summer days and will need electrolytes.
Work such as muscle contraction causes heat. In horses and humans, the body produces sweat to eliminate this heat. (Otherwise the body would overheat dramatically and shut down).
So, why worry about hot weather? If the air is cool it will cool down the sweat on the body surface and so the horses body is controlled at the right temperature. But, if the air is hot then the sweat cannot cool down and so the horse can continue to overheat.
What’s that got to do with electrolytes? Sweat contains electrolytes, so the more the horse sweats the more electrolytes are lost out of the body.
How to Give Electrolyte Supplements
Electrolytes are available in powder form, Equi-Lyte G. The powders can be added to the feed or water. Equi-Lyte G Sachets are available as individual sachets or in 1kg, 4kg or 10kg tubs. Vitamin C and E are added to Equi-Lyte G as powerful antioxidants to help reduce cellular injury and aid muscle recovery.
Electrolytes are also available in preloaded syringes of paste, Refuel. These syringes are particularly useful at a competition for quick and easy once off administration. Refuel Gel also has added B vitamins (to aid muscle recovery and appetite) and antioxidants vitamins C and E.
Always Have Water Available
Of course you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink! However, you should never give electrolytes if the horse does not have access to water. Electrolytes without water will make the horse more dehydrated.
Never give electrolytes to a distressed horse or a horse that is not recovering well after exercise without professional advice.
Adding an electrolyte supplement every day will not “load” the horse’s system. The horse will eliminate what it doesn’t need on a daily basis. But, adding electrolytes every day to horses in training will ensure that any electrolytes lost in training are replaced and improves post-exercise recovery and performance.
Some horses may refuse water after competition even though they are dehydrated. Adding apple juice to the water may tempt them to drink.