Proper Electrolyte Management

Happy Easter Everyone!

When you're reading this, I'll be leaving my all too short weekend trip away to New York City. It was my 25th birthday on Saturday and so we took advantage of the long weekend to celebrate. I hope all of your long weekends were just as fun.

Even though I'm not at home behind my computer screen typing away, I wanted to make sure that you had a new blog post to read. So, I'm prescheduling this post for you.

I’ve decided to share another one of my research papers from my online studies with Equine Guelph. This one is an overview of the importance of proper electrolyte consumption. I hope that you’ll find this interesting.


Throughout the Equine Nutrition course with the University of Guelph, we were introduced to many topics on nutrient management. One of these topics was electrolytes. Like many aspects of a horse’s nutritional diet, having the right amount of electrolytes will affect his health and performance.

Sometimes supplements are needed to ensure that the horse is getting what he needs. Supplements were another topic introduced to the class during the course and electrolytes are often supplemented to horses, especially those who train and compete at higher levels.

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are included in the macrominerals category. These are minerals that are needed in larger quantities in a horse’s diet (Briggs, The Importance of Minerals in Horses' Diets, 2014). When maintaining the electrolyte levels, a horse will stay healthy and will perform well. This is because electrolytes do many things within the horse’s body. They will control the fluid levels within and out of their cells; they control nerve impulse transmission; they help with muscle contraction as well as pumping the heart; they help move food and water through the gut of the horse and they will filter waste products in the kidney and liver (Foran Equine Products). Electrolytes will also help with maintaining osmotic pressure and nerve movement (Larson, 2012).

The main reason why horse owners are usually concerned about their horse’s electrolyte levels, however, is because they play a crucial role before, during and after exercise. If there is a good electrolyte and fluid balance within a horse’s system during exercise, it will delay the time before fatigue sets in (Parker). Also, when using the consumption of electrolytes and water during a cool down, the horse’s recovery time is shortened. In some cases, what might of taken 12 to 24 hours to recover will only take 45 minutes with the help of electrolytes (Foran Equine Products).

There are many different electrolytes that exist. For the purpose of this report, only sodium (Na+), chloride (Cl-) and potassium (K+) will be discussed. These three electrolytes are the ones that play a bigger role in a horse’s diet, health and performance.

What are the signs of an electrolyte imbalance?

A horse should maintain a balanced ratio of each electrolyte in his system. If they are imbalanced, problems may occur. As a whole, if electrolytes are not balanced, dehydration, tying up, synchronous, diaphragmatic flutter (otherwise known as thumps), colic and sometimes even death can occur (Parker). Some other problems that may occur are early muscle exhaustion, decrease in stamina, muscle cramps and poor post-exercise recovery (Foran Equine Products). Sodium and chloride imbalances are often associated with each other as Na+ and Cl- create salt. When a horse is not getting enough salt, a horse owner may discover their horse licking various surfaces to try to get their daily amount. If salt is not provided to the horse, he will become dehydrated, constipated, lose his appetite and become weak. On the other hand, salt toxicity is not often a problem as excesses are often passed through the horse through his urine. However, this may become a problem if a horse does not have access to clean, fresh water. In that case, you may see signs of colic, diarrhea, urinating often, the hind limbs becoming paralysed, staggering, weakness and eventually death (Briggs, Minerals 101, 2014).

For potassium, a loss in this electrolyte will affect a horse’s muscles. Some of the affects include a decline in muscle strength and tone as well as having difficulty to contract the muscles (Foran Equine Products). The other signs you will see if a horse does not have enough potassium is that they will be tired, they will not be cooperative during exercise, they will drink and eat less and they will become more restless. When it comes to potassium toxicity, this will only be a problem if a horse suffers with genetic abnormality hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (otherwise known as HYPP) as potassium tends to build up in their bodies. Horses that don’t suffer with HYPP will excrete the excess through their urine just like the sodium and chloride electrolytes (Briggs, Minerals 101, 2014).

What causes electrolytes to become imbalanced?

A horse’s system is different from our own which means they sweat differently too. Their sweat is considered to be hypertonic. This means that their sweat is more salty than ours because horses loose more electrolytes than water when they sweat. The electrolytes found in a horse’s sweat are chloride, sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. 56% of these electrolytes will be chloride, 27% are sodium, 15% are potassium and 2% are calcium and magnesium (Foran Equine Products).

As the level of work increases for a horse, the more a horse will sweat. In terms of work, they can be categorised into 4 categories; light, moderate, heavy and very heavy work. Trail horses will fall into the category of light work, lesson and the occasional competition horses will fall under moderate work, show jumpers and barrel racers are considered heavy work and racehorses as well as 3-day event horses are considered very heavy work (Cavanaugh & Ternan). In terms of sweat, a light workout will produce 5 to 7 litres of sweat and a heavy workout will produce about 10 litres of sweat per hour (Foran Equine Products). The table included below explains how many electrolytes a horse will lose in relation to the amount he will sweat in a day (Pagan).

 

Rest 5 L 10 L 20 L 40 L

Sodium (Na+) 15-20 g 33 g 50 g 85 g 155 g

Chloride (Cl-) 27-33 g 55 g 83 g 139 g 251 g

Potassium (K+) 40-50 g 46 g 52 g 64 g 88 g

 
 
chestnut horse

How do you manage electrolytes properly?

Depending on the level of work a horse is doing, his electrolyte needs will differ. If horses are participating in intense work, they may not replenish their electrolyte and hydration balances all in one day even with supplements. A horse that is participating in moderate work may be replenished in one day if supplements and water are given before, during and after the event. Horses that are involved in light work will likely not need any supplements as long as they have a free choice to salt and minerals as well as free access to fresh water (Parker).

On average, a horse’s diet should include 0.25% of salt unless they are in hard work as they will then need 0.75% of salt in their diet. If the horse’s diet does not meet these standards, then allowing the horse to have access to salt through blocks will usually help meet his needs. Horses tend to have a “natural wisdom” when it comes to salt deficiency. So if they have access to different types of blocks, he will usually meet his needs on his own (Briggs, Minerals 101, 2014).

For potassium, a horse usually requires 0.4% in his diet daily unless he is involved in hard work which will bring it up to 0.6%. Considering that most forage contains 1 to 4% potassium, having deficiencies or supplements for this electrolyte is not usually an issue (Briggs, Minerals 101, 2014). With that said, it is best to look for electrolyte supplements that are high in sodium and chloride and that are low in potassium (Larson, 2012).

There are many different options when it comes to electrolyte supplements. There are some which also include sugars such as dextrose. Some believe that it would improve absorption of electrolytes or encourage a horse’s digestive tract to absorb more water, but this is not true (Larson, 2012; Pagan). The only true benefit of having an electrolyte supplement with sugar is that it will increase palatability (Parker). It does not matter what form of electrolyte supplement is used (such as in paste form or diluted into water). What is important is that you always allow your horse access to fresh, clean water without any electrolytes in it too (Larson, 2012).

Why is water so important when supplementing electrolytes?

When horses are fed electrolytes without water or they are given water without replenishing their electrolyte losses, you risk dehydrating your horse even more (Parker). When horses are fed electrolytes without having access to water, the gut must absorb water from nearby blood vessels to dilute the high concentrations of electrolytes in the system. When this happens, the horse now has even less water in his system in areas such as his muscle cells so his dehydration worsens. When horses are given water without electrolytes, the remaining electrolytes in their system are diluted even more. Their brain will signal the horse to stop drinking which will make the kidneys excrete more water to bring the electrolyte concentrations back to normal. This process also encourages further dehydration (Foran Equine Products).

The best way to avoid dehydration is to encourage horses to consume as much electrolytes and water as they would like. A horse will get rid of the excess electrolytes through urination anyway so it is better to consume too many over not enough. If a horse is going to be participating in hard work, it is best to increase water and electrolyte intake before, during and after his work (Parker). Though it is not possible to store additional electrolytes in a horse’s system, there has been research done in which demonstrates the benefits of loading additional electrolytes on a horse 1 to 4 hours before an event. This is because the horse does not have the chance to excrete them out of his system before he starts his work. As he sweats, he will lose the additional electrolytes that way and the electrolyte levels left in his body will be much more similar to his required concentrations. In fact, through studying this theory, some reports claim that it increases the time before the horse reaches fatigue by 23% (Foran Equine Products).

What should you remember about electrolytes?

  • Horses lose electrolytes through sweat
  • Proper electrolyte and water intake is needed to avoid problems including dehydration
  • Electrolytes cannot be accumulated in a horse’s system as the excess is urinated out
  • Electrolyte supplement levels should correspond to a horse’s work level
  • If a horse is in heavy work, electrolyte levels may take days before they return to normal
  • Keep the ratio of each electrolyte supplement as close to their sweat ratio to avoid giving additional electrolytes that will not be absorbed and used
  • A horse is more likely to lack electrolytes than to have too many especially during and after a workout
  • Good electrolyte levels keep horses healthy and in their top form as long as they are managed well and they are fed a good, well balanced diet

References

Briggs, K. (2014, November 3). Minerals 101. Retrieved November 2014, from TheHorse: http://www.thehorse.com/articles/34800/minerals-101?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=nutrition&utm_campaign=11-03-2014

Briggs, K. (2014, November 2). The Importance of Minerals in Horses' Diets. Retrieved 2014 November, from TheHorse: http://www.thehorse.com/articles/34799/the-importance-of-minerals-in-horses-diets?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=nutrition&utm_campaign=11-03-2014

Cavanaugh, K. E., & Ternan, S. A. From The Horses' Mouth: Nutrition, Feed and Feeding. Matrix Multimedia.

Foran Equine Products. (n.d.). Electrolyte Loss, Heat Stress And Dehydration. Retrieved November 2014, from Foran Equine Products: http://foranequine.com/horse-care-advice/electrolyte-loss-heat-stress-and-dehydration/pdf

Larson, E. (2012, July 3). Electrolyte Use in Performance Horses. Retrieved November 2014, from TheHorse: http://www.thehorse.com/articles/29353/electrolyte-use-in-performance-horses

Pagan, J. (n.d.). Electrolytes Critical for Performance Horses. Retrieved November 2014, from Kentucky Equine Research: http://www.ker.com/library/proceedings/12/2012%20Conference%20Proceedings_1266.pdf

Parker, A. (n.d.). You Can Lead A Horse to Water, but You Can't Make Them Drink: Equine Electrolytes. Retrieved November 2014, from McCauley Bros., Inc: https://www.mccauleybros.com/media/documents/electrolytes.pdf


I hope that you found this research paper useful. What are your experiences with electrolytes? Do you take it into consideration when you're managing your horse's diet? I'd love to know!

Happy Easter again everyone! If you want to see a bit of my adventures in NYC, head over to my Instagram account. I’ll be posting a few pictures there.

Until next time, happy riding!