The rigours of competition have many implications for the health of the horse and whilst many show no outward signs of stress, all the travelling and disruption to routine could be having an effect.
Studies have shown that, on average, horses lose approximately 0.5% of their bodyweight every hour they travel, which is equivalent to 2.5kgs for a 500kg horse. Much of this is due to sweating so in hotter conditions the losses will be even greater but, unfortunately, horses are often reluctant to drink when travelling. One study found that horses were becoming significantly dehydrated but when offered water at 4 hourly intervals they consumed very little.
Keeping Up Fluid Intake
Always ensure you take plenty of water with you when travelling to competitions and offer a drink at frequent intervals throughout the day. Having plenty with you is especially important if you need to stay away and your horse is reluctant to drink “foreign” water. You can mix your own water with that available at the competition or alternatively get your horse used drinking flavoured water at home. Adding a little peppermint essence or fruit cordial will then mask any different flavours in the water available at competitions. Soaked hay or haylage contain more moisture than dry hay so are worth considering when travelling or competing as an additional fluid source.
Electrolytes are minerals that, when dissolved in the body fluids, develop positive or negative charges and are lost, along with fluid, when a horse sweats. As nerves, and therefore muscles, function via electrical impulses, the balance of electrolytes in the fluids in and around cells influences muscle function. A depletion of electrolytes through sweat can therefore significantly reduce performance and potentially result in muscle cramps or tying-up (Equine Rhabdomyolysis Syndrome).
To reduce the effect of electrolyte losses it is important to use a good quality electrolyte supplement such as Aqua-Aide. These can be used every day, for horses that work hard or sweat a lot, or just around an intense work period or competition. They can be given before, during and after hard work or sweating and in any case should be given as soon after the horse has stopped sweating as possible to help replace deficits and improve recovery rates. Ideally they should be added to the water, as the horse requires both water and electrolytes to re-hydrate effectively, however, if the taste of the electrolytes puts the horse off drinking, they should be added to the feed, making sure that it is fed wet.
Choosing an Electrolyte Supplement
Research has shown that using a well formulated electrolyte supplement before and during a competition can delay the onset of fatigue by up to 23%. Ideally a supplement will contain a balance of salts including sodium, potassium and chloride, as well as magnesium and calcium plus some sugar, often listed as glucose or dextrose, which promotes efficient absorption and aids palatability. Some are available in paste form but be wary of administering these if the horse is not certain to have access to plenty of drinking water during the period afterwards. Electrolytes attract water so, if consumed with insufficient fluid, will draw water from the surrounding tissues into the gut and thus worsen the body’s dehydration level.
Beneficial bacteria maintain their populations in the digestive tract by either reproducing quicker than the rate at which they are being expelled or by attaching to the gut wall. If the flow of material through the gut is increased, such as when the horse is excited or stressed, the bacteria are no longer able to reproduce quickly enough to maintain their populations. Harmful bacteria can take advantage of this situation by trying to colonise the gut while the beneficial bacteria are struggling to cope with the unfavourable conditions.
Feeding a prebiotic supplement, like Digest Plus, will help to maintain a healthy population of good bacteria by providing them with a food source and encouraging their numbers to flourish at the expense of pathogenic bacteria. Since some beneficial species are involved in stimulating the immune system, it becomes even more important to maintain their numbers during competitions when a horse is exposed to other horses and potentially harmful bacteria. A prebiotic can be fed before, during and after a period of stress or on an ongoing basis to those who continually suffer from loose droppings.