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Electrolytes 101

Welcome to our first blog post! A little daunting but very exciting to be bringing all our customers and fellow equestrians easily accessible information. The heading gives it away today we are looking at electrolytes. Having experienced dry stifling heat of North West and Gauteng to the humidity of KZN and now Stellenbosch and the Western Cape, it is safe to say summer is in full force and the African sun is gorgeous but potent. Riding in these high temperatures is difficult not only for us as riders but for our equestrian partners. If we are one of the lucky ones, we are able to ride in the early mornings or late evenings to avoid some of the heat, but show season is upon us and unfortunately riding at midday in the stifling heat is a reality. Most riders at shows drink sports drinks after they have ridden to quench their thirst, get sugar levels back up and to replenish electrolytes to avoid cramps and light headedness, etc. So, in the spirit of equality within our equine relationships lets look at electrolytes more and how they too will benefit our four-legged friends…

What Are Electrolytes? Okay, bear with me while we delve into the science world briefly. Electrolytes are common minerals that will bond into salts in their solid form, when dissolved in water they break down easily into their individual components called ions. Ions will carry either a positive or negative charge. Positively charged ions are calcium, potassium, sodium, and magnesium. Negatively charged ions are chloride, bicarbonate, and phosphate. Due to the minerals carrying charges they can play a role in most of the electrochemical processes that sustain life. Electrolytes also play a pivotal roll in moving fluids in and out of cells, nutrient absorption, and regulation of the body’s total fluid balance. In simple terms, electrolytes ensure that any water intake is delivered to the cells that need it. They are involved in muscle contraction, thirst regulation, nerve function and maintenance of blood pH. End of science…Basically electrolytes are key in maintaining hydration in horses. Before we answer the question of, “why can’t I just make sure my horse has access to water after exercise?” we have to look at the sweating process and how it effects electrolyte balance within the body.

A horse’s ability to sweat is an essential process to maintain a horse’s body temperature. During work when a horse’s internal temperature increases their body sends a signal for heat dissipation. This involves electrolytes “unlocking” the sweat glands and fluid then pours onto the skin where it evaporates, and the process of cooling begins. The price of cooling is electrolytes! All the electrolytes lost through the body must be replenished through diet or supplementation. There is a common misconception that electrolytes are only needed for high performance athletes, however, the truth is any horse that sweats for a prolonged period will deplete these vital minerals to critical levels. Therefore, the cause of sweat is not important but rather that sweat means electrolytes are lost and need to be replenished.

Just an interesting side note… most people associate electrolytes with summertime; however, they can be very beneficial in winter too when there is a lack of pasture rich grazing. Which in the Western Cape there is a lack of pasture rich grazing in the summer coupled with the heat means it is very important to ensure that your horse is getting the necessary electrolyte replacement.

Back to the obvious question, “why can’t I just ensure my horse has access to enough water after exercise?” The answer: a horse’s body cannot retain water without electrolytes being present, thus offering water after work does not mean your horse will be rehydrated straight away. Adding electrolytes to water forms an isotonic solution that ensures water and electrolytes are replenished. Therefore, adding electrolytes to water after exercising your horse is the best way to ensure rehydration.

When electrolyte levels are unbalanced or depleted, physiological processes may be disrupted, slow down or in severe cases, shut down. We as humans can feel when we are low on electrolytes with symptoms such as: muscle cramps, muscle spasm, increased heart rate, dizziness, etc. We know to go and drink an electrolyte drink to replenish our electrolytes. Symptoms of electrolyte depletion in horses are fatigue, muscle cramps, tying up, sunken eyes, dull coat, dark urine, listlessness, and colic to name a few. We replenish our own electrolytes, so let us not forget about our four-legged partners that make our sport possible.

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