Equine Sports Medicine

Dehydration and Electrolyte Losses in the Sport Horse

'You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink' is a maxim that has long been used to underscore the apparent stubbornness of the horse. In the heavily exercising, or heat-exhausted horse, however, this refusal to drink has nothing to do with personality or temperament, and everything to do with physiology. In this section, we'll discuss the fluid and electrolyte composition of the normal horse, and the particular requirements of the equine athlete in work.

What is dehydration?

Dehydration occurs when your horse's body loses excessive amounts of water. Normally, both you and your horse lose body water on a continual basis, in the form of sweat, urine, and feces. However, on an ordinary basis, you replace these losses without even thinking about it - your body tells you that you are thirsty, and you drink fluids. However, sometimes the losses are too great for the body to keep up with. In the exercising horse, fluid loss occurs in the form of sweat. Early in dehydration, the horse can cope well with the fluid loss. Dehydration is estimated in terms of percentage of body weight that the horse has lost. It is very difficult to detect losses of %5 or less. At this point, the skin may become less elastic, which is seen as skin tenting. If you pull up a loose fold of your horse's skin, it may take a very long time to return to its normal state. As dehydration progresses, the heart rate will rise, because there will be less fluid in the blood vessels, so the heart has to pump the blood around faster to achieve the same effect. Your horse will urinate less frequently, or not at all. Your horse's performance will deteriorate, as the dehydration contributes to exhaustion. Eventually, with severe dehydration, your horse will not longer be able to perform, and may even collapse.  Back to the top

What do I need to know about 'Lytes'?

First, what are electrolytes? At the most basic level, electrolytes are salts, such as table salt, that dissociate into separate ions when they are dissolved in water. Electrolytes are integral to nerve and muscle function, as well as to almost every other physiological function in the body. The most important electrolytes include sodium (Na+), chloride (Cl-), potassium (K+), calcium (Ca2+) and magnesium (Mg2+). These electrolytes are distributed throughout the body in a highly ordered way: any disruption of this order can result in severe bodily dysfunction. For example, when the body's electrolyte levels are disturbed, your horse may have heart problems, his gastrointestinal system may not work properly, his muscles may develop cramps, and he may not even be able to think straight, because his brain may not function normally.   Back to the top

Figure 1

Fluid compartments in the horse

Your horse - or you, or any mammal- is approximately two thirds water. So, for an average-sized, 1000 lb horse, water accounts for 660 lbs of its body mass - which translates into 80 gallons of water! Of that 80 gallons, one third is extracellular (meaning fluid that is outside of the cells of the body, such as the fluid that is found in blood), and two thirds is intracellular (stays inside the cells). The electrolyte composition of the extracellular fluid (ECF) and intracellular fluid (ICF) is very different. The ICF is very high in K+, whereas the ECF is very high in Na+. We use blood values to estimate whole body electrolyte composition, but they may be quite misleading, because they don't tell us about what is happening with the intracellular fluid.   Back to the top

Figure 2

Water and electrolyte losses in the horse

All athletes lose water as sweat during exercise - it's part of an adaptation for getting rid of excess heat. As the sweat evaporates, your horse's body cools down. This is the primary reason why it is more difficult to exercise in high humidity - the sweat is still generated, but it doesn't evaporate, and thus doesn't cool effectively, so even more sweating is stimulated. It's a vicious cycle when its too hot and humid. Equine sweat glands are different from human sweat glands, with the result that horses lose more electrolytes during sweating than humans do. Horses lose large amounts of both Na+ and Cl- in their sweat, with smaller losses of Ca2+ and K+. Water losses are high during exercise - up to 10 liters per hour. The rate of water loss will depend on the intensity of exercise as well as the ambient temperature.   Back to the top

Consequences of water and electrolyte losses

After a challenging cross-country phase, a few chukkers of polo, or an endurance ride, your horse is likely to be quite dehydrated. Losses tend to occur early in the ride, even though your horse may look normal. Signs that you might look for are dry mucous membranes, sunken eyes, fatigue, high heart rate and respiratory rate that don't come down with proper cooling-out measures, or colic. The attending veterinarian will look for signs of dehydration, including weak pulses, delayed filling of the jugular vein (the large vein that runs the length of your horse's neck), skin tenting, and poor capillary refill time (CRT). In order to determine the CRT, your veterinarian will press the horse's gum lightly to cause blanching of the color, and determine how long it will take for the color to return. In the normal horse, this takes no more than 2 seconds. As dehydration proceeds, the horse may eventually collapse. In addition to the dehydration, your horse is also likely to have a whole body loss of electrolytes. Signs of low electrolyte levels may include nervousness, fatigue, muscle tremors, and stiffness. Researchers at Washington State University have recently found out that the body's hormones are still working to recover lost sodium the day after intense exercise - even though the horses showed no outward signs of electrolyte depletion.   Back to the top

So, why won't my horse drink?

Your horse's body gets the signal that it is thirsty when one of two things happens: either the blood volume drops, or the sodium concentration in the extracellular fluid increases - that is, it gets concentrated, or salty. Horses get the thirst signal more slowly than humans. This is because in humans, Na+ is less concentrated in sweat, so sodium becomes more concentrated in the blood, and the thirst signal goes out quickly. In horses, the sweat glands are very poor at conserving Na+ so even though the horse has lost a large amount of water and Na+ , the signal does not go out for the horse to drink until a serious drop in blood volume occurs due to dehydration. Consequently, even though your horse is clearly dehydrated, when you lead him to water you can't make him drink! He's not stubborn - his body is just not giving him an early enough warning signal.   Back to the top

Figure 3

How much water does my horse need in a day?

  • A good rule of thumb is that a horse needs at least a gallon of water per 100 lbs of body weight. For your average horse, this equals 10 gallons a day.
  • Water requirements vary greatly according to the weather and the level of work that the horse is doing. For instance, if your horse is exercising in hot, humid weather, he may need 2-4 times the minimum amount.   Back to the top

Getting your horse to drink more

  • The first, and most important thing, is to make sure that your horse has continual access to water!
  • Horses tend to drink less water in the winter if the water is cold. Studies have shown that horses will drink more water if it is warm or tepid. So, get yourself a water heater, and don't expect your horse to drink the icy cold water!
  • Some horses are very picky about 'foreign' water. Tips from experienced competitors include bringing enough water from home, and getting your horse used to drinking flavored water. Many horses enjoy water flavored with apple juice.
  • Horses will drink more when it is held up to them after and during competition.
  • Try to offer your horse water in a quiet area, where he will not be disturbed by all the action around him.
  • One wet-down flake of hay can absorb 1-2 gallons of water. If you feed your horse well-soaked hay, you can make a real impact on his fluid consumption. Endurance riders take advantage of this by feeding horses soaked hay before long rides.   Back to the top

Will my horse colic if I let him exercise with a stomach full of water?

NO! The horse's stomach empties very rapidly in response to a water ingestion, so you really needn't be concerned about colic, or a stomach that is too full.   Back to the top

Can I give my horse too much electrolytes?

  • Yes! Electrolytes can actually be toxic in excessive amounts.
  • Requirements for salt (NaCl) range from one tenth of a percent of the ingested feed for a broodmare, to three tenths of a percent of the ingested feed for a competition horse.
  • The maximum amount of NaCl that a horse can tolerate before it becomes toxic is 3 percent of the ingested feed. It would be unusual for a horse to ingest that much salt, as the food containing it would have an unpleasantly salty taste.
  • If you start to give your horse to many electrolytes, you will start to notice that your horse is urinating frequently, and drinking much more water.
  • We generally do not recommend adding electrolytes to water. If you do choose to supplement this way, it is VERY important that you also always offer your horse a bucket of water with NO additives. Your horse cannot, and should not, take in enough water with electrolytes to sustain his fluid requirements, and will become dehydrated if you do not give him access to plain water. In general, it is a better idea to supplement electrolytes in the feed, rather than in the water.   Back to the top

How much salt can a horse be given?

  • Horses can generally be supplemented from 1-2 ounces of salt per day.
  • Most commercial grains contain from 0.5% to 1% added salt, in addition to potassium and calcium. Because horses eat considerably more hay and other forage than grain, the horse's total ingested salt will be less than 1%. This is more than adequate for a pleasure horse, but is usually not enough for heavily exercising horses.   Back to the top

How much salt does a horse get from a salt block?

It really depends on whether your horse has a taste for the salt block. Studies have shown that some horses fail to take in even the minimal requirements if they are simply given a salt block.   Back to the top

How can salt be supplemented?

Salt can be supplemented in the form of a salt block ( a trace mineral block is best), or as free salt added to the grain. This works best with a grain that has some sort of binding agent, such as molasses.   Back to the top

How do I supplement electrolytes?

  • If you use commercial preparations, look for one that contains approximately three parts NaCl to one part KCl, as well as calcium and magnesium
  • If you would like an inexpensive and effective solution, all you have to do is buy Lite salt (this is just KCl), and ordinary table salt. Mix them at a ratio of three parts table salt to one part Lite salt.
  • The amount you give depends on the weather and the horse's level of exercise. In general, horses that are not sweating excessively need 2 ounces per day of this mixture. Horses who are sweating in hot, humid weather need 3- 5 ounces of this mixture.
  • In order to ward off electrolyte losses, give your horse approximately 2 ounces of electrolyte supplement a few hours before competition. If the competition will be long (such as an endurance ride), plan to give the same amount every hour to 1 hour.
  • Don't give your horse dry hay after competition - it will soak up water that the horse needs elsewhere in the body.   Back to the top

How do I treat my horse's fluid and electrolyte losses after competition?

  • Horses that have done short, extreme bursts of exercise need to be carefully cooled down, and should be given frequent, small sips of water.
  • Horses that have done long, moderate exercise (such as endurance horses), should be allowed to drink water during and immediately after competition.
  • Although electrolyte solutions are not the best way to deliver electrolytes on a daily basis, they are appropriate after competition. As a matter of fact, your horse will be much more likely to drink an electrolyte solution during or after competition, rather than before. However, your horse does need water, not just electrolytes.
  • Horses that are moderately to severely dehydrated need veterinary attention. The attending veterinarian will treat with intravenous fluids and fluids given with a nasogastric tube.   Back to the top