Salt vs. Electrolytes for Horses: What’s the Difference?

April 20, 2021

As a horse owner, you’re probably aware of the importance of feeding salt and electrolytes. But do you know which one you should give your horse, and when? Do horses need salt, electrolytes, or both? Is there a difference? Good questions.

First, we need to understand that salt is an electrolyte, but it isn't the only electrolyte horses need. Confused? Let’s clear the cloudy waters and discuss what elements are considered electrolytes, when your horse needs them, and what to look for in an electrolyte supplement.

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What are Equine Electrolytes?

According to this article in Scientific American, electrolytes are chemicals that, when dissolved in water, produce ions with an electrical charge.

“These ions have either a positive or negative electrical charge, which is why we refer to these compounds as electro-lytes. In the world of nutrition, we use the word “electrolyte” more specifically to refer to minerals dissolved in the body’s fluids, creating electrically charged ions.” 

5 horse electrolytes

These are the five main electrolytes horses need:

  1. Sodium (Na)
  2. Chloride (Cl)
  3. Potassium (K)
  4. Magnesium (Mg)
  5. Calcium (Ca)

Sodium, chloride, and potassium are the three most important electrolytes for horses. Salt, or sodium chloride (NaCl), is created when the top two electrolytes are combined. Thus, salt is an electrolyte, and one of the most important for horses.

Why Do Horses Need Salt and Other Electrolytes?

What roles do salt and electrolytes play in the equine body? Are they needed daily? What functions do they serve? Let’s look at both.

Salt

Salt helps trigger the thirst response that tells horses to drink. Why? A horse's brain monitors sodium levels and tells horses to stop drinking when levels are low. This is to avoid flushing more sodium from the body. When sodium levels are normal, horses are more inclined to keep drinking.

Providing a horse salt before strenuous exercise, during extreme hot or cold weather, or other times of need helps sodium levels stay balanced and stimulates a  horse to keep drinking. Without salt supplementation, some horses won’t consume enough water on their own, and risk becoming dehydrated. 

Electrolytes

Electrolytes are essential minerals that play a vital role in a horse’s fluid retention, nerve conduction, muscle contraction, even digestion. Electrolytes are involved in nearly every bodily function.

Horses with electrolyte deficiencies will experience fatigue and decreased performance. If a deficiency leads to dehydration, horses may weaken, collapse, and in worst-case scenarios, die.1

How Do Horses Become Deficient in Electrolytes?

Every horse sweats—some more than others. Within sweat are copious amounts of electrolytes. A horse that’s exercised heavily can lose up to 4 gallons of sweat, which contains approximately 30 teaspoons of body salts.

According to this article by Kentucky Equine Research, sweat is predominantly made of sodium, chloride, and potassium, with other electrolytes like magnesium and calcium present in smaller amounts.

The amount of electrolytes a horse loses through sweat depends on heat, humidity, and how hard and long a horse is worked. Electrolytes are also lost through urine and feces, particularly diarrhea. When large amounts are lost, they need to be replaced to help horses rehydrate and recover.

Salt vs electrolytes

Should You Give Your Horse Salt or an Electrolyte Supplement?

So your horse has been working or sweating hard and needs additional electrolytes. Should you give salt or an electrolyte supplement? Yes! Horses need salt daily and occasionally an electrolyte supplement.

Feeding Salt

Salt is a necessary part of a horse’s everyday diet and should always be available. Ensure your horse receives adequate salt by offering a quality free-choice mineral salt lick like Redmond Rock or by adding Redmond Rock Crushed loose mineral salt into feed.

Feeding Electrolytes

Further electrolyte supplementation is also necessary when large quantities need to be replenished. An electrolyte should be given in addition to daily salt rations and is indicated whenever a horse experiences prolonged or repeated sweating.

Here are some vet-recommended situations when a horse may benefit from an electrolyte (click here to view the full post by veterinarian Jessica Huntington):

  • Before and during hauling.
  • Before and after an event or competition.
  • After excessive sweating.
  • During hot, humid, or extreme weather conditions.
  • At the first sign of colic.
  • At the first sign of loose manure or diarrhea.

Important: If you’re feeding an electrolyte in water, never add it to your horse’s only water supply. Always provide a separate fresh water source.

How to Choose an Electrolyte Supplement

Now that you know the importance of electrolytes, how do you choose a supplement that’s best for your horse? Look for these important factors when selecting an electrolyte:

  1. High salt content. Sodium and chloride (salt) and potassium should be the main ingredients.
  2. Low sugar content. Sugar should not be the main ingredient. Electrolyte supplements shouldn’t contain more than 15% sugar.1
  3. Isotonic to sweat. An isotonic supplement provides electrolytes in similar concentrations as sweat. According to this PubMed article, an isotonic sweat-like electrolyte is the best solution to rapidly restore fluid and plasma electrolyte imbalance in horses.

Electrolyte-1

Redmond Equine Electrolyte

Redmond Electrolyte syringe is a fast-acting electrolyte paste that rapidly replenishes critical electrolytes and vitamins and improves energy and performance in horses.

Redmond Electrolyte contains:

  • Sodium and chloride (salt) and potassium as main ingredients.
  • 60+ trace minerals for horses harvested from our Redmond mineral deposit.
  • Added vitamins for health and performance.
  • Low sugar content.

Redmond Electrolyte is natural and effective and helps horses stay hydrated and in peak form. Click below to learn more or try our product!

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Learn More

When should you give an electrolyte? Veterinarian Dr. Jessica Huntington suggests 8 situations an electrolyte paste benefits horses.

Is your horse dehydrated? Check for these 5 symptoms of dehydration.

Sources:

  1. https://ker.com/equinews/pass-the-salt-endurance-horses-and-electrolytes/
  2. https://www.horsetalk.co.nz/2015/07/28/pass-the-salt-electrolyte-replacement-horses/
  3. https://smarthorsenutrition.com/electrolytes-for-horses-all-you-need-to-know-including-how-to-make-your-own/#:~:text=There%20are%20five%20main%20electrolytes,roles%20within%20the%20horses'%20body.

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