It’s important to understand what you are supplementing your horse with and why you are doing it. There are so many ways to supplement, and determining what to use and when can be a challenge for horse owners. One type of supplement that many veterinarians recommend are classified as electrolytes. There are many different forms of electrolytes, and choosing the best one for your horse will require a little research in order for your horse to achieve maximal benefits.
Horses sweat in order to cool themselves after sustained bouts of exercise or extreme weather. When a horse sweats, the horse is losing intravascular fluids. Within those fluids, important body salts called electrolytes are released from the body. These salts are responsible for a myriad of bodily functions including the pumping of the heart, the movement of ingesta through the gastrointestinal tract, and the filtering of wastes through the kidneys. On the cellular level, electrolytes control the fluid balance of the body by regulating movement of water in and out of the cells. Without sufficient circulating electrolytes, horses may weaken, collapse, and – in worst case scenarios – die.
When exercised in hot, humid weather, a horse may lose up to four gallons of sweat per hour. Horse sweat contains primarily sodium, chloride, and potassium. Other electrolytes including magnesium and calcium are also present in smaller amounts. The concentration of electrolytes in the bloodstream and sweat is not identical. Horse sweat is termed hypertonic, which means that a greater concentration of electrolytes exists in sweat than in the fluid (i.e. blood) circulating in the body. This means that these electrolytes are lost in the sweat, which is why supplementing with appropriate types of electrolytes is important.
Electrolytes come in many forms. When reading labels, make sure that the majority of ingredients in the electrolyte you choose include sodium, chloride, and potassium. Added sugars will make the supplement more palatable, although it is not appropriate to be supplemented daily to some horses, so check for the sugar content in the supplement as well.
It is important to know when to supplement horses with electrolytes. For example, I suggest sparsely supplementing horses that are prone to gastric ulcers due to the tendency for daily supplementation to worsen ulcers while they are healing. Horses that are exposed to multiple days of sweating due to heat, trailering, or competing will need the supplementation during that time to help give back what is lacking in their vasculature. I also suggest supplementing with electrolytes once or twice a week in the winter in order to enhance water intake and prevent impaction colic during the cold winter months.
Remember to provide your horse with ample access to water throughout the year – and especially while exercising in hot weather. Electrolytes are an important supplement to have available in the barn, to supplement regular water intake. When used correctly, electrolytes are a great preventative measure for many problems. The Cheshire Horse carries a variety of electrolyte supplements.