Electrolyte Balance – vital to the proper functioning of a racehorse's system

Electrolytes are essential components of the racehorse’s diet as they are vital to the proper functioning of the body’s basic physiological processes, such as nerve conduction, muscle contraction, fluid balance and skeletal integrity. The major electrolytes, sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium and magnesium are widely distributed within the body, but can be more concentrated in particular organs and tissues. For example, the level of potassium is very high in red blood cells but quite low in plasma, and the level of calcium in blood is low, but comparatively very high in bone and in muscle cells. The body has in-built mechanisms that work to maintain the correct electrolyte balance within the tissues, fluids and cells. These modify the absorption of electrolytes in the gut, or their excretion by the kidneys. These mechanisms are not foolproof however, and electrolyte loss through sweat can be a major issue for Thoroughbreds. The sweat of the equine athlete, unlike its human counterpart, is hypertonic; meaning that horse sweat contains higher levels of electrolytes than the circulating blood plasma. Consequently, the horse loses comparatively large quantities of electrolytes through sweating.

Although the electrolyte composition of equine sweat varies between individuals, on average a litre would contain about 3.5g of sodium, 6g of chloride, 1.2g of potassium and 0.1g of calcium. From this we can see that the majority of the electrolyte lost is in the form of sodium and chloride or ‘salt’. The amount of sweat produced on a daily basis and therefore the quantity of electrolytes lost differs from horse to horse and depends on a number of factors. As sweating is primarily a cooling mechanism, how hard a horse is working, i.e. the duration and intensity of exercise and both the temperature and humidity of the environment are all significant. Horses can easily produce 10 litres of sweat per hour when working hard in hot humid conditions. Stressful situations can also cause greatly increased sweating.

For example, during transport horses can lose a significant amount of electrolyte through sweating and the opportunity for replenishing this loss through the diet may be less as feeding frequency is reduced. Use of electrolyte supplements either in the form of powders or pastes is advocated before, during and after travel, especially over long distances. Jim Paltridge from IRT (UK) Ltd, (International Racehorse Transport), says, "we use a powdered electrolyte supplement added to the feed on a regular basis given for the 3 days prior to travel. We find this helps offset much of the loss normally incurred during transport and subsequently the horses arrive at their destination in better shape. We feel this electrolyte supplementation is a valuable attribute in the ongoing battle to reduce in-flight dehydration".

Electrolytes lost from the body in sweat must be replenished through the diet. All feeds, including forages, have a natural electrolyte content and in concentrate feeds this is usually enhanced by the addition of ‘salt’, which is sodium chloride. Forages such as grass, hay, haylage or alfalfa (lucerne) naturally contain a large amount of potassium, as can be seen from the table 1 below. In fact, 5kg of hay for example, would provide in the region of 75g of potassium, which largely meets the potassium needs of a horse in training. It is therefore questionable whether an electrolyte supplement needs to routinely contain very much potassium unless forage intake is low. Calcium is another important electrolyte, but it is lost in sweat in only very small amounts and its availability in the diet tends to be very good.

Calcium is particularly abundant in alfalfa with each kilogram of the forage providing nearly 1.5g of calcium. A kilo of alfalfa alone would therefore go a long way towards replacing the likely calcium loss through sweating. In addition, the calcium found in alfalfa is very ‘available’ to the horse in comparison to other sources, such as limestone. Calcium gluconate is another very available source of calcium, however, it has a relatively low calcium content compared to limestone (9% vs. 38%) and so much more needs to be fed to achieve an equivalent calcium intake. Interestingly, there is great variation between individual horses in their ability to absorb calcium, however, scientific studies carried out at Edinburgh Vet School showed that this variability was considerably less when a natural calcium source in the form of alfalfa was fed.

By far the most important electrolytes to add to the feed are sodium and chloride or ‘salt’. The levels of sodium and chloride found in forage are quite low and due to manufacturing constraints only limited amounts of salt can be added to traditional racing feeds. A typical Racehorse Cube fed at a daily intake of 5kg (11lbs) would provide only about 20g of sodium and 30g of chloride. As can be seen from table 2 this is a fair way short of meeting the daily requirements for these particular electrolytes by a racehorse in hard work.

It is therefore very important that supplemental sodium and chloride is fed. Ordinary table salt is by far the simplest and most economical electrolyte supplement, but the downside is the issue of palatability as the addition of larger quantities of salt to the daily feed can cause problems with horses ‘eating up’. As an alternative salt could be added to the water, but only when a choice of water with and without salt is offered. Salt should not be added to the water if it puts a horse off from drinking, as dehydration will become a problem.

Inadequate water intake can also contribute to impaction colic. Saltlicks are another alternative, although intake can be vary variable and we rely on the horse’s innate ability to realise its own salt requirements, which is questionable. So addition to the feed is by far the best route for adding salt or electrolyte supplements to the diet. Splitting the daily intake between two or three feeds can reduce problems with palatability.

Mixing salt and Lo Salt can make another simple DIY electrolyte supplement in the proportion of for example 500g to 250g respectively. Salt is sodium chloride (NaCl), whilst Lo Salt contains a mixture of sodium chloride and potassium chloride (KCl). This formulation provides 3g of sodium, 6g of chloride and 1g of potassium per 10g measure. This DIY mixture will replace these electrolytes in the approximate proportions that they are lost in sweat. What are the implications of a racehorse’s diet containing too little or too much of an electrolyte and how can we assess this? An inadequate level of certain electrolytes in the diet in some horses may simply result in reduced performance. In other individuals, it can make them more susceptible to conditions such as rhabdomyolysis (tying up), or synchronous diaphragmatic flutter (thumps), both of which are regularly seen in horses in training. Conversely, an excess electrolyte intake is efficiently dealt with by the kidneys and is ultimately removed from the body via the urine.

Therefore, the most obvious effect of an excessive electrolyte intake is increased drinking and urination. For this reason, the use of water buckets rather than automatic drinkers is preferred, as whilst the latter are far more labour efficient, the ability to assess water intake daily is lost. Excessive electrolyte intake can also be a causative factor in diarrhoea and some forms of colic. There is also some recent evidence in the scientific press that suggests that repeated electrolyte supplementation might aggravate gastric ulcers. However, these early studies used an electrolyte administration protocol typical of that seen during endurance racing, rather than simply a daily or twice daily administration, which is more commonly used in racing.

Supplements that contain forms of electrolyte that dissolve more slowly in the stomach, however, may be less aggressive to the sensitive mucosa. Unfortunately blood levels of sodium, potassium, chloride or calcium are poor indicators of whether dietary intake is sufficient or excessive unless it is very severe. This is because the body has effective systems for regulating the levels of these electrolytes in blood within very tight physiological limits. A creatinine clearance test, which measures the electrolyte content of a paired blood and urine sample is a much more useful indicator of dietary electrolyte adequacy.

There are a large number of commercial electrolyte products available, with a wide range in the breadth of ingredients that they contain. Consequently, they vary enormously in the amount of electrolyte that they deliver per recommended daily dose, as can be seen in table 3. In addition, whilst some glucose or other carbohydrate can help improve palatability, its presence should not compromise the amount of electrolyte that is contained within the supplement. In humans, it is recognised that the uptake of sodium from the gut is improved in the presence of glucose, while this effect in horses has not been firmly established. Electrolyte paste products are also often used either before and or after racing or travel.

These products are useful as they allow rapid electrolyte intake even when feed eaten may be reduced following racing. These electrolyte pastes often provide a more concentrated form of supplement and it is extremely important to ensure that the horse has access to water immediately following their use. Failure to do this may mean that the concentration of electrolytes in the gut actually draws water from the circulating blood, which can exacerbate dehydration. Another disadvantage with paste supplements is that if they are not formulated well, with an appropriate consistency, they can be difficult to dispense from a syringe and the horse may also be able to spit most of the product out after administration.

Some simple rules of thumb for choosing a good electrolyte are that salt should be one of the first ingredients listed on pack, as all ingredients are listed in descending order of inclusion. Additionally, be wary of supplements that taste sweet, as they may contain a lot of carbohydrate filler and little electrolyte. Some electrolyte supplements also contain many superfluous ingredients such as vitamins and trace minerals. The inclusion of these latter ingredients is largely unwarranted and their presence could cause issues with oversupply if the electrolyte is multi-dosed daily. Some electrolyte products specifically marketed towards racing may also contain bicarbonate.

The theory behind its inclusion is sound as ‘milk shaking’, whilst outside the rules of racing, has some scientific validity. However, the limited amount of bicarbonate contained in such electrolyte supplements is unlikely to have the positive effect on performance attributed to the former practice. Other extra ingredients such as pre-biotics may be more useful as they may improve the absorption of some electrolytes. In Summary, electrolyte supplementation in one form or another is essential within a racing diet. Ensuring that you are using a good electrolyte supplement is important and the quantities fed must be flexible and respond to changes in the level of work, degree of sweating and climate.