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Julie Dauvillier's advices

Posted on: juin 7, 2019 | Author: Dr Julie Dauvillier | Categories: Preparation for exertion

« You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. » *

Julie Dauvillier's advices

Heat regulation for horses

When a horse physically exerts itself it generates heat, which must be carried away from the body in order to prevent it rising above the optimum temperature range for physical exercise. The most effective way of dissipating this excess heat is perspiration followed by evaporation of the sweat. The horse has highly developed sweat glands and is uniquely able to produce hypertonic sweat, i.e. containing a higher concentration of electrolytes than blood. During strenuous exercise, the horse heats up and loses large volumes of water (up to 12 litres an hour) and proportionally an even higher volume of electrolytes. These losses must be compensated by giving the animal water and electrolytes, partly to ensure it can sustain physical exertion during lengthy competitions (endurance), and partly to be able to participate and perform in events the following days.

Hydration and performance

Hydration level and electrolyte balance are two determining factors of performance.

Good hydration will allow the horse to deliver water to both its:

    1.  vital organs (brain)
    2.  muscles, which are central to performance
    3.  skin, to produce sweat and cool the body.

Electrolytes play a crucial role in a vast number of vital functions such as neurotransmission, heart contraction and muscle contraction. 

When seeking to improve performance, it is therefore essential to ensure sport horses are sufficiently hydrated and have the correct electrolyte balance before every event.

What types of horse are affected?

Endurance jockeys are particularly aware of this problem and follow special protocols to rehydrate their horse and restore the electrolyte balance before and after an event. Eventing and show jumping riders are less aware of the issue. However, rehydration is part of the routine for eventing horses, especially those taking part in international eventing where the show jumping takes place the day after the cross-country event. For show jumpers, recovery is crucial when the event takes place over several days, especially in hot climates (e.g. Doha, Mexico) since this will increase their perspiration and European horses may not be accustomed to the heat. These problems are accentuated by long journeys that increase the risk of dehydration, which must be addressed before the horse can compete.


What to do?

There are two key points to ensuring a good level of hydration for your horse before a competition:

    1. Every day, select a high-quality feed specially designed for professional sport horses containing the right concentration of minerals.  If necessary, include an electrolyte additive during periods of intense training or warm weather when the horse is likely to sweat more.
    2. Design a rehydration/electrolyte protocol for special situations (e.g. long journeys, multi-day competitions, hot climates, post cross-country recovery). Ideally, the protocol should be tested at home to make sure the horse can follow it.


Rehydration and electrolyte additives - what does science say?

A number of studies shows that giving an isotonic solution (containing electrolytes) after an episode of dehydration allows the blood volume to return to normal faster than with pure water. On the other hand, it is dangerous to let a horse that has lost a lot of electrolytes (especially sodium) drinking too much pure water because this carries a risk of swelling in the brain which can lead to coma. In humans, the gut absorbs ions much better when they are accompanied by glucose (sugar).

« You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. » *

This neatly sums up one of the problems when trying to rehydrate a horse. Numerous animal species share a particular reflex that suppresses feelings of thirst when a cold hypotonic fluid (such as pure water) enters the mouth during physical exercise. This was probably an evolutionary mechanism that developed to prevent animals from having to stop and drink when fleeing from a predator. The reflex, which can persist for several hours after exercise, is a major obstacle when it comes to managing dehydration.


What solutions?

To encourage your horse to drink:

    • Make sure your horse is accustomed to drinking after exercise and training
    • Bring your own water if possible, because horses are very sensitive to taste
    • Add apple juice to the water to stimulate thirst and mask any after-taste
    • Offer warm water immediately after exercise

To correct electrolyte losses:

  • Although electrolyte pastes are very practical, they are highly concentrated and can harm the stomach mucosa.
  • It is better to dissolve a specially designed electrolyte solution in drinking water to stimulate thirst and provide the necessary minerals. Make sure you test the product at home before the event.
  • Provide a tasty additive containing both electrolytes and sugar to stimulate the thirst response.