Horses have a much higher ratio of muscle than humans, meaning their bodies generate more heat in less time. Horse muscle makes up around 40% of a horse’s body mass, compared to only 20% in the average human. The more the muscles contract, the more heat is generated that the body has to deal with. And because horses have a lower skin surface area in proportion to their size than humans, they have a harder time getting rid of body heat.
For horses, the greatest risk of dehydration due to heat actually comes from longer periods of low-intensity work or exercises. Because these exercises are seemingly less intense, neither horses nor their owners notice the gradual but serious dehydration going on. To combat the heat, cool water is important, but since water is a diluter, water alone will further dilute the low bodily electrolyte supply, and will be excreted as urine since the kidneys identify ingested water as an overload. To combat this, a proper use of electrolytes is necessary to maintaining horse health during times of heat and bodily stress.
Pick a Good Electrolyte
In science speak, electrolytes are the ionized parts of living organic matter. In everyday terms, electrolytes are what keep our bodies healthy and running properly. When we (or our horses) exert energy, our body uses up electrolytes, and electrolytes are used up the fastest when a body becomes so heated it sweats. Electrolyte supplements replace those lost in sweating to keep our bodies functioning properly until a proper amount of nutritious food and water can be administered.
When purchasing a supplement, it is important to choose one that mimics the sweat lost by your horse. Find a product with approximately a 1:2:4 potassium:sodium:chloride ratio. This simply means that for every one gram of potassium, there should be two grams of sodium and four grams of chloride. Also, try to avoid fillers as they decrease the efficiency of electrolytes and products without them are more direct.
It is also important to choose a supplement that tastes good. Horses can be picky eaters, and, like children, will not want to ingest bad-tasting medicine.
Identify Signs of Dehydration
Horses whose internal body temperature has increased significantly through short, intense exercises or long, easy to moderate exercises need to be cooled down with water and re-hydrated with electrolytes. While an electrolyte formula should not be used on a daily basis, their use is unmatched after hard work, competitions, or in conjunction with long travel.
An easy way to test dehydration in your horse is by pinching the horse’s skin. If the skin easily snaps back, the horse is well-hydrated. But if the skin slowly sinks back to its original position, the horse needs some special attention.
Electrolyte supplements come in all shapes and sizes. You can buy bulk options in pellets, powders, or pre-packaged syringes. The type you choose depends on how easily your horse eats or drinks in hot, stressful situations.
Knowing when to administer the electrolytes is essential to your horse’s health and performance. If you anticipate extensively hard or strenuous activities, like competitions or horse hauling, you can start feeding electrolytes to your horse one to two days in advance, during the activity itself, and up to two days after. For slightly less strenuous work, administer a dose to your horse an hour or two before the work begins, and after the work is completed.
In general, horses need anywhere from 30 to 90 grams of electrolytes per hour of strenuous work, depending on their weight and external heat.
• Pellets – Pellet electrolytes are mixed directly into your horse’s food supply during a normal feeding. These work well if your horse is not a picky eater, and you are pre-feeding him electrolytes before a large event, travel, or a strenuous day job.
• Powders – Powders are more diverse and adaptable than pellets. Powders can be mixed in with feed in the same way pellets are, mixed with something like apple sauce or yogurt, or mixed with water, making a horse sports drink.
• Syringes – Pre-packaged syringes are more expensive than pellets or powders, but are very handy, especially for reluctant horses. All you have to do is squirt the contents of the syringe into your horse’s mouth. You can make your own syringe electrolytes by mixing two to three ounces of powder with a paste substance like apple sauce or yogurt and filling a clean syringe with the good-tasting solution.
It is important to never force feed your horse. If your horse is reluctant, focus on cooling him down and getting him to a more comfortable state before trying again.
Tip: Salt Lick
For regular, daily electrolyte intake, make sure your horse has regular access to salt to keep his blood hydration levels up. Low blood levels of sodium leads to overall dehydration, but the issue is usually self-solving if you simply put up a salt lick in your horse’s stall.
While electrolytes are essential for strenuous activity, too many can actually be toxic. Furthermore, only providing your horse with electrolyte-mixed water will advance his dehydration. Your horse should always have access to plain drinking water, and if at all possible, try to mix your horse’s electrolytes into his feed or administer it as a syringe, keeping his drinking water separate. While mild dehydration can be handled and prevented by a horse owner, moderate to severe dehydration requires veterinary attention and possibly intravenous fluids.