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Strive to minimize heat stress in working horses

Heat stress is a serious problem for horses each spring and summer in Texas. Heat stress can lead to decreased performance, hyperthermia, anhydrosis, heat shock, heat stroke and even death.

Heat stress can be minimized through proper nutrition and feeding management practices. Feeding salt and electrolytes is one key feeding practice. Electrolytes are major minerals needed by the body to keep it functioning properly. Salt, potassium, calcium and magnesium are electrolyte minerals. Of these important minerals, salt is needed proportionately in the highest amount, particularly in sweat.

Electrolytes are not stored in the body — they must be consumed daily.

A mature 1,200 pound non-working horse requires about 1 1/2 ounces of salt per day. This salt requirement is easily met when feeding a commercial salt-added feed. If this 1,200 pound horse works in the summer, at light work (recreational riding) or medium work (ranch work a day or two a week), he sweats moderately. Sweating will increase his salt requirement an additional 1/2 ounce to 1 ounce per day. Providing a free-choice salt block to the horse will take care of this additional need.

A horse has nutritional wisdom for salt and he will eat what he needs. In other words, the horse custom supplements himself, some days eating more salt, some days eating less. Offer white salt, not trace mineralized salt (red or blue block) or sulfur (yellow block) salt. Salt blocks work well in humid climates. Horses can easily crumble pieces off of the soft block, quickly eating what they want. Salt blocks are not good in arid climates where they become hard as rocks making it difficult and slow for horses to lick what they need.

Owners also need to know when a working horse requires electrolyte supplements. A 1,200 pound horse, sweating profusely at heavy workloads (race, polo, endurance, eventing) will require a total of 3 ounces to 4 ounces of salt per day. Because this horse is usually in competition, being hauled, periodically off feed, tired and off its feeding schedule, make sure this horse gets electrolyte supplements.

Commercial electrolyte supplements come in powders. These supplements can be added to the feed or water, or given with a paste syringe. Owners can prepare an inexpensive electrolyte supplement by mixing 3 parts of table salt (NaCl) with 1 part of light salt (KCl), such as Morton’s Lite Salt, and 1 part of ground limestone, a source of calcium, available at the feed store. Feed this supplement according to the workload performed by the horse each day. If the horse is only being worked hard on selected days, feed the supplement, or paste him, one day before, during, and one day after the hard workout.

Adding electrolyte powders to the water is risky unless you closely keep track of the horse’s water consumption. If the horse turns down the water, because of its taste, unbeknownst to you, conditions for dehydration are accelerated.

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