Should I feed my horse electrolytes?

horse tacked up in dressage equipment, blue numnah, polo wraps and ears, ridden by a female rider

What are electrolytes?

Horse electrolytes play vital roles within the body and are involved in most bodily functions including:

  • Digestion
  • Fluid regulation
  • Acid-base balance (pH) of the body
  • Neurological functions such as muscle contractions

Electrolyte deficiency can affect your horse’s health, comfort and ability to recover from exercise. The five main electrolytes required by your horse are:

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Chloride
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium

Horses lose these electrolytes daily in urine, faeces and sweat. Sweating is their primary way of cooling down, and hard-working horses can produce 10-15 litres of sweat per hour during intense exercise. 

Consequently, they can lose a lot of electrolytes – approximately 9g per litre of sweat. Sodium, chloride and potassium are present in large quantities in sweat, with smaller amounts of magnesium and calcium.

Are electrolytes appropriate for your horse’s feeding regime? Our friendly team of expert nutritionists is here to help you figure it out.

What is electrolyte deficiency in horses?

Electrolyte deficiency can take months to become a problem, but signs include:

  • Poor performance
  • Decreased sweating
  • Muscle problems such as tying up
  • Poor recovery after exercise, thumps (synchronous diaphragmatic flutter)
  • Increased risk of fractures

Electrolyte deficiency is linked to fatigue and muscle weakness, both of which will affect performance. It can also cause a decrease in the horse’s thirst response, leading to dehydration. Sodium is the main electrolyte responsible for your horse’s regulation of thirst, and a deficiency of it can impair their ability to recognise when they need to drink. 

When does a horse need electrolytes?

It is common for horses not to receive enough electrolytes from their diet. This applies in particular to sodium, as forage in the UK is often low in it. Whilst grass, hay and hard feed do provide some electrolytes, in most cases it is not enough to meet your horse’s requirements if they are in more than light work. 

Can I just add salt?

For horses in light work that are consuming fresh grass and a balancer, adding some table salt will provide the additional sodium and chloride that they need. For a typical horse, adding 25g per day of table salt to their feed will provide them with enough sodium to meet their requirements. 

Whilst giving your horse access to a salt lick will provide them with additional salt, several studies have concluded that horses do not regulate their intake to match their requirements with a salt lick.

Performance horses

It is particularly important for performance horses to include an electrolyte supplement in their diet to prevent a deficiency. Horses that work intensively or for long periods of time are likely to be producing more sweat and thus losing more electrolytes and water. 

To enable them to perform at their best, it is important to make sure that your horse is well hydrated and has sufficient electrolytes in their body before competition.

What ingredients should I look for?

When choosing an electrolyte supplement, make sure the main ingredients include sodium and chloride. Methods of electrolyte administration and absorption can vary by manufacturer, so look for a version that is stomach-friendly and efficient. You will also want to consider the tastes and preferences of your horse, as some electrolyte products are more palatable than others. 

One method of improving palatability and efficiency of electrolytes is to encapsulate them in a fat coating, which reduces the salty taste and allows it to reach the small intestine where it can be absorbed with maximum effect. 

By staying intact for longer, there is also less chance of irritation to the stomach, which is especially beneficial for horses with gastric ulcers. A less-salty flavour means encapsulated electrolytes require less sugar and are more palatable, making them suitable to feed to horses that need a low sugar diet. Our Pure Electrolyte utilises this technology, and customers have reported that their horses find it very tasty and easy to digest. 

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How should I feed my horse electrolytes?

Electrolytes can be added to feed, water or given as a concentrated paste. If electrolytes are added to water, make sure to provide your horse with another source of fresh water, without anything added to it. In all cases when feeding your horse electrolytes, fresh clean water should also be available.

As well as providing electrolytes and fresh water, ensure that your horse has plenty of fibre in their diet as this also helps prevent dehydration. Fibre helps to trap water in the hind gut, as well as electrolytes, providing a reservoir which can be used when needed. 

How often do I feed electrolytes?

Feeding an electrolyte daily, as opposed to just adding an electrolyte supplement after intense work or before a competition, is advisable. This will allow the horse to excrete any extra electrolyte that it doesn’t need and help prevent an electrolyte deficiency. 

Feeding only after competitions could cause your horse to refuse their feed if they are not used to being fed electrolytes. In addition, suddenly adding large amounts of electrolytes before or after a competition to a horse that isn’t used to getting them could disturb the hind gut and cause gastrointestinal problems. 

How much should you give your horse?

The amount of electrolyte to feed will depend on several factors such as your horse’s breed, duration and intensity of exercise, fitness level, diet, environmental conditions (horses have been shown to sweat more in humid and hot conditions than in cool conditions) and their individual metabolism. Look for the manufacturer’s guidelines and feeding recommendations on the packaging or their website.

Can a horse have too many electrolytes?

As always, it is important you follow the manufacturers guidelines and feeding recommendations. If you do, over-supplementation of electrolytes is unlikely. However, signs to look out for include excessive drinking and excessive urinating. 

Are electrolytes suitable for your horse? You can contact our expert nutritionists for individual advice at [email protected] or give us a call on 01458 333 333. You can also request a FREE bespoke diet plan for your horse here.

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