Electrolytes are common and we hear about them frequently (especially in the summer!), but what are they really?
Briefly, electrolytes are minerals in the body which help maintain fluid balance and conduct electrical currents for many essential functions such as muscle contraction and nerve cell response.
The following are the 5 most important minerals considered electrolytes in the horse. *Hint: these are the main ingredients you should look for on an equine electrolyte supplement label:
Buyer beware: many human electrolyte supplements contain large amounts of glucose (sugar) to help support muscle recovery. However, this is not necessarily what the horse needs. Equine electrolyte supplements may be mis-formulated if they contain mainly sugar, and high-quality products should contain less than 20% glucose or other filler (1).
The horse has a low daily requirement for these minerals which can usually be met with the animal’s diet alone.
That being said, a horse’s sweat has a higher concentration of minerals than humans, so when they do lose large volumes of sweat, they may need extra electrolytes in order to replenish those being lost.
Situations in which feeding electrolytes is beneficial include:
- Endurance horses and/or any type of horse doing full-day work
- Long-distance travel
- Humid conditions when sweating is amplified
Signs of Electrolyte Imbalance in Horses
If horses are not provided with the proper amounts of electrolytes, imbalances within the body can occur, manifesting in different symptoms dependent upon which mineral is deficient. Signs of electrolyte imbalances include, but are not limited to (2):
- Myositis (tying up): primarily from potassium deficiency
- Diaphragmatic Flutter (also known as ‘thumps’ in horses): imbalances in calcium and magnesium
- Twitching or tense muscles: deficiencies in magnesium and calcium
- Heat Stress: overall mineral imbalance
When to Supplement Electrolytes in the Horse
Interestingly, the water in a horse’s digestive tract serves as a large reservoir of electrolytes for the animal to maintain fluid balance (1).
Due to the ability to draw from their internal resources, it is likely not necessary to supplement as many electrolytes as you might think in order to replenish what has been lost.
However, during digestive upset and long-term diarrhea, not only is the horse becoming dehydrated, but they also simultaneously lose their internal reservoir of electrolytes and subsequently the ability to replenish the electrolytes in the body, which further worsens the dehydration effects.
So what does this really mean?
The importance of a healthy gut and digestive system goes far beyond proper digestion and gut health.
If you are concerned that your horse has an electrolyte imbalance due to any of the reasons listed above, it is likely a good idea to provide probiotics in conjunction with electrolytes to help restore this reserve and return the body to proper working order.
*Please note that serious mineral deficiency can have detrimental results if not treated, please contact your veterinarian immediately if you are concerned that your horse may be dealing with severe electrolyte imbalance.*