The weather is getting hotter, the sun is getting stronger, the humidity is rising, and surprise! Your horse has begun to sweat during his workouts and during extended time in the pasture. With so much sweat, how is this affecting your horse and what should you do to best protect him?
Before conclusions are made, one must have an understanding the inner workings of the horse. A horse’s sweat contains high levels of electrolytes, which are charged minerals assigned the task of maintaining the flow of bodily functions, transmitting nerve impulses, and ensuring that the muscles and circulatory system function properly. Electrolytes are vital components of a moving, healthy horse. The most common electrolytes, sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, and magnesium are all found within a horse’s sweat glands. Since electrolytes are charged minerals, their positive and negative charges control a body’s pH balance and carry signals across membranes, nerve, and muscle cells to power bodily functions, such as transporting waste and nutrients to and from cells. Some electrolytes are dissolvable in water and are known as ions. However, when they are in a solid state, electrolytes bond into salt. You are probably familiar with electrolytes in this state; table salt and lite table salt are the simple bonded solids of electrolytes.
So now that some basics of electrolytes have been discussed, how does a horse maintain a proper level of the minerals? Since electrolytes are present in a horse’s sweat, significant amounts are lost by perspiring horse from strenuous, prolonged activity. Once a horse perspires, the electrolytes in the sweat are lost. If not regained, unbalanced electrolyte levels can lead to diminished performance. This may even prompt the horse’s heart and gut to shut down. Usually, though, a horse with insufficient electrolyte levels has decreased stamina and is more easily fatigued. To help prevent this from happening to your horse, you must ensure that your horse receives the proper balance of electrolytes in hist diet. Excel Equine®® Feeds adds sodium chloride, or table salt, to all of our feeds to ensure the horse receives all the electrolytes it needs. Usually, when there are excess electrolytes in a horse’s system, the kidneys will filter them out through the digestive system; you may notice a larger patch of soiled bedding in your horse’s stall one morning!
Horses are similar to humans in that they release excess heat through perspiration. When a horse’s internal temperatures are continually rising, the horse will “unlock” its sweat glands, allowing perspiration to flow onto the skin. When the sweat dries, the resulting effect is a cooling of the horse’s body temperature. Many may think that only top-level competition horses are capable of losing quantities of sweat copious enough to become depleted of electrolytes; however, what many people do not realize is that any horse can lose electrolytes through sweat, no matter how hard the work! A horse who has been trail riding all day or has been standing in a hot, stuffy trailer is equally as at risk of depleting their electrolyte levels as a top performer. If enough electrolytes are lost, an owner must be aware of dehydration. A horse who has not drunk enough water or electrolytes may begin to lose the capability to perform motor functions. Some signs of severe dehydration include uncoordinated muscle contractions, an unsteady gait, trembling, and muscle weakness. A trigger in the horse’s brain telling him to drink fails to function when he does not have enough water or electrolytes, leading to the horse losing interest in drinking.
Determining whether you believe you horse should receive supplementary electrolytes is quite simple: if your horse sweats continuously for a prolonged period of time, an electrolyte supplement may be beneficial to ensure he is hydrated and healthy! However, be aware that there is no standard “cookbook” approach to determining the perfect amount of electrolytes your horse should receive. There are many factors contributing to the amount a horse sweats, including temperature, humidity, cloud cover, and the type of work a horse performs. A horse’s work performance and the environment he is in causes varying quantities of lost electrolytes. For instance, a fox-hunting athlete can lose anywhere between 33-148 grams of sodium, 12-51 grams of potassium, and 63-284 grams of chloride during a three-hour workout.
If you are worried that your horse is losing too many electrolytes through sweat, the best option to ensure he maintains a healthy balance is to add additional electrolytes to his diet. For the most part, horses typically receive as much chloride and sodium as they need from a salt block and from the salt included in the grain portion of the diet. Providing a salt block for a horse to lick on as he pleases ensures that an average horse who does not sweat profusely receives his needed electrolytes. However, for animals who sweat more often, adding an electrolyte supplement will ensure he stays hydrated and healthy. The most popular choice in supplementation is an electrolyte powder that serves as a top dress on grain. These supplements usually come in a large bucket that includes a small scoop for measuring. The powdered electrolyte supplements can even be dissolved in a bucket of water. If you chose to add electrolytes to water, make sure that an additional fresh bucket of water is provided in case the horse does not care for the flavor of the supplemented water. The last electrolyte supplement option is a gel or paste that can be inserted directly into a horse’s mouth through a syringe. This is convenient for riders who need to rehydrate the horse during a ride and do not have access to fresh water or grain. This method should be avoided if a horse has an empty stomach; pastes and gels can lead to gastric irritation. They should also not become a routine operation as they can worsen a horse’s gastric ulcers.
As we approach the hot summer season, it is critical to ensure that your horse is properly hydrated and continues to function at his normal level. Providing additional electrolytes based on your horse’s level of work is a guaranteed method to maintain a healthy, happy, and hydrated horse this season!