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Horse Care: How to Use Electrolytes
Horses have a much higher muscle-to-muscle ratio than humans, which means their bodies produce more heat in less time. Equine muscle makes up about 40% of a horse’s body mass, compared to only 20% for 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 smaller skin surface area in proportion to their size than humans, it’s harder for them to get rid of body heat.
For horses, the greatest risk of heat-induced dehydration is actually extended periods of low-intensity work or exercise. Because these exercises are seemingly less intense, neither the horses nor their owners notice the gradual but severe dehydration. Cool water is important to combat the heat, but because water is a diluent, water alone further dilutes the body’s low supply of electrolytes and is excreted in the urine because the kidneys recognize ingested water as overload. To combat this, proper use of electrolytes is necessary to maintain horse health during heat and physical stress.
Choose a good electrolyte
In science, it is said that electrolytes are the ionized parts of living organic matter. In everyday terms, electrolytes are what keep our bodies healthy and functioning properly. When we (or our horses) exert energy, our bodies use electrolytes, and electrolytes are depleted most quickly when the body heats up to the point of sweating. Electrolyte supplements replace the amounts lost through sweating to keep our bodies functioning properly until the right 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 a potassium:sodium:chloride ratio of approximately 1:2:4. 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 reduce the effectiveness of the electrolytes and products without them are more direct.
It’s also important to choose a supplement that tastes good. Horses can be picky and like children, they don’t want to swallow medicine that tastes bad.
Recognize the signs of dehydration
Horses with significant increases in core body temperature due to short bouts of intense exercise or prolonged light to moderate exercise should be cooled with water and rehydrated with electrolytes. Although the composition of electrolytes should not be used on a daily basis, their use is incomparable after hard work, competitions or with a long trip.
An easy way to test your horse for dehydration is to pinch the horse’s skin. If the skin retracts easily, the horse is well hydrated. But if the skin slowly sinks back to its original position, the horse needs special attention.
Electrolyte supplements come in all shapes and sizes. You can buy bulk options in the form of pellets, powders, or prepackaged syringes. The type you choose will depend on how easily your horse eats or drinks in hot and stressful situations.
Knowing when to administer electrolytes is essential to your horse’s health and performance. If you anticipate a lot of heavy or strenuous activity, such as racing or hauling a horse, you can begin feeding your horse electrolytes one to two days before, during, and up to two days after the activity. For slightly less strenuous work, dose your horse an hour or two before starting work and after finishing work.
In general, horses require between 30 and 90 grams of electrolytes in any strenuous activity, depending on their weight and the external heat.
• Pellets – Pellet electrolytes are mixed directly into your horse’s food supply during normal feeding. They work well if your horse is not picky and you feed him electrolytes before a big event, trip or a hard day’s work.
• powders – Powders are more versatile and customizable than granules. Powders can be mixed with feed in the same way as pellets, mixed with things like applesauce or yogurt, or mixed with water to make a sports drink for horses.
• Syringes – Packaged syringes are more expensive than pellets or powders, but are very handy, especially for stubborn horses. All you have to do is squirt the contents of the syringe into your horse’s mouth. You can make your own electrolytes in a syringe by mixing two to three ounces of the powder with a paste such as applesauce or yogurt and filling a clean syringe with a 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 more comfortable 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 high. Low sodium in the blood leads to general dehydration, but the problem usually resolves itself by simply putting a salt lick in your horse’s stable.
Although electrolytes are essential for strenuous activity, too much of them can be toxic. Furthermore, only providing water mixed with electrolytes promotes dehydration of the horse. Your horse should always have access to regular drinking water, and whenever possible try to mix your horse’s electrolytes into his feed or administer it as a syringe, keeping the drinking water separate. While mild dehydration can be managed and prevented by the horse owner, moderate to severe dehydration requires veterinary attention and possibly intravenous fluids.
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