Summer has arrived! It’s a season many of us look forward to, as longer, warmer days set the scene for fun in the sun with our four-legged friends. However, the summer months do present their own set of challenges when caring for our horses; maintaining adequate hydration and minimising electrolyte loss are two of the most important considerations when preparing for the sometimes harsh conditions Australian summers can present.
Horses do not naturally have a strong thirst drive and will often spend only a few minutes each day drinking water. As such, ensuring water sources are clean, fresh, easily accessible and appealing for the horse is the first step we can take to promote adequate fluid intake, particularly during the summer months. While some horses are spelled during summer, meaning their requirement for electrolyte supplementation will differ from those that are exercised, promoting adequate hydration is the first principle of summer horse care, regardless of the animal’s workload.
Horses can consume up to 50 litres of water per day, and are likely to drink twice as much water if the water is cool than when its temperature is warmer than 30 degrees. As such, position water troughs and tubs in the shade where possible, and consider providing multiple water sources for horses kept in herd environments. Horses grazing on lush pastures will naturally take in more water through the grass they consume than those relying on dry pasture and/or hay and other feeds; remember to consider your horse’s diet when monitoring your horse’s water intake.
Water makes up approximately 65-75% of a horse’s body weight; if a horse becomes dehydrated due to insufficient water intake and/or fluid loss, the impact can range from appetite loss, lethargy and poor performance in mild cases, to major impacts on vital organs such as kidney failure, and death in severe cases.
WHAT ARE ELECTROLYTES?
An electrolyte is a mineral that conducts electricity when dissolved in water. As with humans, many of the automatic processes in the horse’s body rely on a small electric current to function. Electrolytes provide this, interacting with each other and the cells in the tissues, nerves, and muscles. The right balance of different electrolytes is vital for healthy, normal body function.
Electrolyte levels can change in relation to factors such as water levels in the body; when the level of an electrolyte in the blood becomes too high or too low an imbalance can occur. Important electrolytes are lost in sweat when the horse exercises, including sodium and potassium, however, in hot summer conditions a horse can sweat while resting in the paddock or stable, creating the same effect, particularly if they have limited access to shade or are rugged. Horse sweat is more concentrated in electrolytes than blood – the opposite of humans – hence the potential for extreme electrolyte loss when horses exercise and sweat.
The minerals collectively referred to as electrolytes are sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. If your horse is not ingesting the correct amount or balance of these minerals through its diet to suit the animal’s environment and workload, electrolyte supplementation will be necessary.