March 14, 2016

Electrolyte Usage in Endurance

With the decision to do a 100 mile ride, I have been doing a whole lot of serious thinking, planning and research on all aspects of endurance riding and care in order to find some unknown holes in our regimen and make changes as soon as possible.

One topic that comes up pretty often is that of electrolytes.

The dosage of electrolytes comes up in two forms and my brain tends to work in a fairly common sense, simplistic manner when looking at these things. 

Type 1: replacement during exertion. This makes 100% perfect physiologic sense to my brain. As the horse is working they produce sweat and in that sweat is water and electrolytes. Since you are continuing to ask for exertion without allowing adequate time to refuel and reload to a state of balance once again, dosing electrolytes throughout the race becomes very important. Some horses require more than others and this will vary with weather and the amount of exertion.

For this I use a syringe versus loose in her feed because then I know for sure that she got it and how much. I have made my own recipe to mix in with mashed carrots or applesauce as well as purchased them and both seemed to have worked the same. I dose the night before, the morning of and during the holds.

I am horrible at doing it during conditioning rides which needs to improve.

Type 2: pre loading during periods of rest. This makes zero physiologic sense to my brain. When the horse is at rest, most often the week leading up to a ride, dosing with electrolytes to enhance drinking and therefore hydration. There is a big contingent of riders who advocate this and I am really scratching my head over it.

Looking at it from a physiologic perspective, the body maintains a state of balance/homeostasis. When this is thrown off kilter in either direction, loss or excess, the body uses its many pathways to correct this and return to a balanced state.

So there is Gem hanging out in her pasture the week up to the ride. She is eating her free choice hay at will, munching on some spring grass, getting her Triple Crown fortified feed and has access to good, clean water at all times. In theory, she should be in a state of balance since animals aren't like us humans and tend to remain hydrated as long as water is available. They don't skip the water for a sugary beverage of pure sweet tea filled delight.

So anyway...I head out there and dose her with a big syringe of electrolytes. My goal in this is to enhance her hydration based on the recommendations of the masses so that she starts the ride in perfect hydrated status. She takes it reluctantly because man is it a gross goop and then I stand back and watch her. She heads to the water tub and drinks deeply. She continues to drink more than the previous day and I leave the barn satisfied that I am improving her hydration status.

Meanwhile, Gem's body has stepped out of homeostasis and is now in a state of imbalance with excess electrolytes flowing through her blood stream. It kicks into overdrive to use the pathways to return once again to its natural balanced state. She intakes more water to help flush the electrolytes out and her kidneys begin pumping away. Eventually, she begins to urinate more and more and she flushes this out of her system and finally returns to a state of balance.

I suppose that if she was mildly depleted of electrolytes, she would absorb and use some of what I gave her, but most of it will have ended up in the pasture soil.

The next day I head back out and see her again. I notice how much water she drank and pat myself on the back for increasing her hydration status so well. I then redose her with more electrolytes and the process begins anew.

In the end she will have drank more water the week leading up to the ride, but it was all excreted promptly along with the excess electrolytes. I also just increased her likelihood of having ulcers from the goop and taxed her system with having to work more to excrete the useless electrolytes that I just pumped into her body needlessly.

Or at least that is how my understanding of physiology understands it.

I do think doing some electrolytes the day before the ride makes a bit of sense just in case she is depleted a bit sitting in her pasture. I wouldn't do it to increase her thirst, but instead to actually replenish any needed electrolytes. What has worked for me is to start her on a slurry of Grand Vite and alfalfa every day the week before a ride to help replenish anything she is needing and to get her body used to alfalfa again. I only ever feed alfalfa during a ride, so I like to give her some leading up to it.

I think I will just continue doing that until someone can better explain why on earth I need to shove salt in my mare for an entire week up to the ride hoping to get her to drink more. I can only imagine how her stomach would be nauseated and how bloated she would feel after doing that.


  1. Electrolytes have always been a head-scratcher for me, and I've tended to err on the side of caution when giving them. How you're laid out the two scenarios makes a lot of sense to me in the replenishment versus pre-loading. The pre-loading idea doesn't make sense to me...I've gone with the protocol of free-choice loose salt, lots of fresh water readily available, and increase the amount of grass hay they get in the week leading up to the ride. "Pre-dose" maybe the afternoon before the ride to help them make up for any losses during travel and to encourage hydration overnight.

    (I also seem to be "gifted" with horses who hate electrolytes and being syringed..."You're poisoning me!!!" so I don't got out of my way to chase them down with syringes. :))

    1. She has a mineral block but ove read that those don't get used that much. Better to do loose salt like you do. How do you offer it to her?

    2. I have a over-the-fence-rail feeder (like this: hung from the stall rail, and keep a couple cups of loose salt in it. (I use plain white salt for here, b/c the red or mineral salts usually have iron in them, and our soil has more than enough iron in it, so no extra iron in the diet...) I check it every week and change it out as necessary.

    3. How much do you think she consumes? This sounds like a great idea. I never see Gem at the mineral block, so it is really hard to tell if she is even using the thing. If I switched to this method, I could at least track how much she is taking in.

    4. I'm really bad at tracking's there as a "in case you need it" extra sort of thing. Mimi gets ~ 1oz of loose salt added to her supplements on a daily basis, so I know she's getting that, so the bucket is an "above and beyond" offering.

      I'll be honest: electrolyte protocol baffles me, and I am SO not good at sifting through the scientific explanations without getting completely lost. I've always said "I don't ride competitively enough to worry about it" but looking back, there were times that I probably could/should have been doing *something* more proactive in my horse management...I just didn't know what at the time.

  2. The preloading never made much sense to me, but you've explained it in a way that makes sense! I haven't done enough rides (and never a 100) to have any real valid information, but I have been really, really conservative with my approach. I pre-load with just sloppy beet pulp mashes, so the gut is hydrated, and maybe an electrolyte mash when we get to the event. I do feed some salt every day in mash in general, but it is just the minimum daily allowance since my horse doesn't eat from a salt block. At rides I just feed electrolytes in mash, which is rarely turned down. But we don't deal with the humidity here, which I've heard is a major concern.

    When I went to a talk by one of the main Tevis veterinarians he was iffy on prepared electrolytes, and really said he thought just plain salt is fine for most horses. Enough people argued with him to make me even more confused.

    1. My homemade recipe uses table salt, no salt for potassium and tums as a protectant and for calcium. It worked but I didn't see any change from when I used pre made syringes and buying them was way easier and less messy than mashing fruit and stringing it myself.

  3. You pre-load elytes because the horse's gut has the unique ability of being able to *store* electrolytes. Riders out West are able to get away with elyting a lot less because it is so dry climate-wise. It is a completely different ballgame out here in the humid East.

    As written by Mel from Boots & Saddles: (The lecture she is writing about is by Susan Garlinghouse. Also read through the comments.) (This is from the 2014 AERC convention. Lecture is by Marty Adams, an equine nutritionist. I love Mel's thoughts on his talk as well.)

    1. The first article you linked to was about dosing during exertion which I covered in my Type 1 and makes 100% absolute sense. You are physically pushing the horse out of balance by riding it and continuing the exertion so the horse can not reach balance on its own. It is why we give elytes during a ride. I give elytes the night before to help her drink at camp, the morning of and at each hold. These not only replace what is lost (which is also up for debate as the levels provided for in purchased syringes don't actually make up for the entire deficit, but that is another topic in and of itself), but also help with continued hydration during the event. I also like her mention of using a dose prior to trailering to help since the horse is working during the trailer ride, but not at a level that may make them drink. Giving a dose prior to a long trailer trip is a great idea that I have not done and would think about doing except for the fact that in the trailer she would have no access to free water and I am 100% against elytes when water is not available.

      The second article also addresses this in terms of exertion. She does recommend loose salt daily and again this is to maintain a balance on a daily basis, but I would add to be sure that you are not overdoing it when you feed a concentrate that already accounts for the daily allotment.

      What I am questioning is not the above, but giving a high dose (the same as you would during exertion, not the every day requirement to meet baseline) elyte for 7 days leading up to a ride when the horse is at rest and has full access to grain, hay, grass, loose salt/salt block( loose salt seems to be preferred by most vets) and clean water. The addition of a daily dose of exertion level concentrated elytes to increase drinking when at rest is what I don't understand, have never seen any articles to back up and yet see people advocating on a near daily basis. The horse is already hydrated, they are not undergoing any exertion (riding or trailering) and are getting the daily requirements to meet functional levels and so the excess is not required and over an entire week of doing so, the risks of building up to toxic levels and/or causing an ulceration are high.

  4. From the AERC website:

    Best elyte blog post ever written, by Aarene Storms who is a major endurance veteran on a non-Arab. She rides in the humid Pacific NW:

    By Garlinghouse. I have these three articles printed and filed with my endurance paperwork:

  5. And another...
    This is by Dr. Arthur King, one of the top ride vets in the Northeast. I had the opportunity and privilege of talking to him in person when Lily crashed after the Fort Valley 50 in 2014 due to an electrolyte imbalance. My current elyte protocol is his recommendation. Also, he specifically said that horses working in humid climates need to be electrolyted at 3x what you would do out West. One of the things I was asked over and over when Lily crashed was if I had pre-loaded her. Yes, I did. I just didn't do enough.

    1. Again, this is all when at work. I get that. I agree with it. This is all about making sure that when your horse is working you are giving them the ability to replenish what is being or is about to be lost. This is about elite balance.

      What isn;t being written about or studied is using high dose elytes when at rest to make the horse drink 7 days prior to the ride. In that amount of time, without exertion the horse is going to either build up a toxic level (possible and Dusty has seen it when working in equine medicine) or urinate it out. Dosing the day before, the morning off during the ride and then after the ride has all been well studied and is highly recommended by pretty much everyone in the sport.

      The high doses 7 days out has not been and yet I read posts all the time of people adding elytes the week before to "make the horse drink". There are no studies that show that doing this that far in advance is useful.

    2. I should also mention that I love the idea of offering salt water first at a hold. Studies have shown that those horses who are offered salt water for the first 5 minutes of a hold will in turn drink more water over the course of the hold than those offered clean water only. I plan to begin using salt water (recommendation is 1 tsp per bucket of water) as the first offering for 5 minutes after my conditioning rides and then take that away and offer clean water only to see how Gem takes to it. If she drinks it and it shows no ill effects, I will be doing the at all my ride holds from here on out.

    3. When Lily crashed after her completion at the Fort Valley 50 in 2014, I was asked by three different ride vets, including Dr. King and Dr. Wolfe, who is a boarded equine sports medicine specialist, if I had pre-loaded my horse who developed a potassium deficiency during a ride, the week before that ride. When I explained that I had, I was grilled on exactly how much. I had been giving one scoop of a sodium-chloride based supplement once a day. I was told it needed to be 3x that...despite it being a fall (cool) ride. Tevis riders pre-load. Old Dominion riders pre-load. I do what the pros do, and what I was told to do by equine vets who monitor these horses day in and day out. Like I said, Mel talks repeatedly throughout her blog about the horse's capacity for storing electrolytes in their gut: this is why you pre-load. Not to make the horse drink more, it's so that the horse has a built-up storage of electrolytes in their gut going into the ride. I go with what three ride vets told me: I pre-load. You do what you want; I know you take everything I say with a grain of salt which is why I'm linking to my sources of info in my last attempt to help you out. I'm just sharing my experience because I would hate for you to end up with a metabolic pull at your first 100 during a humid May ride in the South. :( I won't comment again.

  6. I have to agree with Nicole on all of her points. I have had way better luck pre loading Q. To boot, Dan with his Morgan Stdbd. cross who is infamous for NOT drinking drank amazingly after a pre loading elyte protocol. I only know one rider who doesn't electrolyte at all and her horse is bred to the nines with race lines for generations which makes him special. For the rest of us we can't be so lucky usually. Do what you will, but I can say from my experience the pre loading has made a big difference for Q and nearly everyone else I have encountered.

    1. Have you ever prepped for a big run or other event by drinking gatorade a lot during the week preceding? I used to do that a lot when I was competing at a high level with swimming. It's the best comparison to human based stuff I can make.

    2. No I don't pre load and I don't know any ultra runners who do either. I do take GU (human elyte) during to replenish what is lost, but I don't think I can really correlate that to Gem because I know what I have planned and make the bad decisions to eat like crap and remain mildly dehydrated for most of my life (I pretty much only drink when I eat which is stupid but I can't seem to break the habit). I pretty much assume all animals are smarter than me when it comes to that kind of thing, plus she has no clue if I am taking her out for a 6 mile or 100 mile ride.

      I really think we are talking about two completely different things though. I understand the point of elytes during the ride, when trailering to the ride, and for the day you are in camp. I don't think there is much debate about using them there.

      I have in the past and plan to continue to give her elytes at those times as well as carry some on me during the loops in case I feel she needs them as well. My concern with giving them on trail is access to water and historically Biltmore has not put out much water on trail. It may be different though at an FEI ride and during a 100. I don't know. I don't like to give elytes when the access to water is unknown.

      As far as "pre loading" goes I think, though I may be being a bit dense here which is not unheard of, that we are talking about two totally different things which is where all this debate in the comments is coming from.

      What I was trying to speak about and research was the claim that I have read many endurance people say/write which is specifically that they give elytes the week leading up to the ride **purely to get the horse to drink. **

      I'm not talking about the need for elytes for proper muscle, heart and lung function. I'm not talking about giving them elytes for the purpose of preventing thumps, tying up or a metabolic pull. Those things Nicole clearly stated in a great way and has had her own experiences with it and talks to endurance specific vets. I get that and that does sound like a perfectly good use of elytes prior to a ride.

      What I was specifically referring to was not that. I was talking about the claim that the use of salt the week leading up to ride is to force the horse to drink to stock up on water so that when you start the ride you have a full tank of water in the horse.

      That is what I can't wrap my head around. That is what makes no sense to me since any "excess" water is just excreted and you can infect be over hydrated, which is something I have experienced when I forced myself to drink way too much during a half marathon and it sloshed around and made me feel quite horrible.

      So with that in mind. Do you pre load Q the week leading up to with salt solely for the sake of adding water to her system or is it more to provide the necessary nutrients to get her through the exertion that is coming up? The latter makes perfect sense to me and I can see the reasoning and the science behind doing that although I am a bit hazy on how much you should be giving on a daily basis leading up to the ride. The former makes no sense to me since your horse should be well hydrated when just chilling in the pasture not being ridden and with full access to water.

      Does that clear it up a little? I hope so as I am not trying to start an online comments war or be mean to anyone. I think I am just taking about apples and it is being taken like I am actually taking about oranges and it isn't coming across right.

    3. Good way of putting it. And yes it does seem to be coming across that way.

      No, I have never heard of people using purely salt to preload. Electrolytes and just salt are two completely different things so far as this conversation is going, I think. And electrolyte usage is vastly different between the dryer west and the more humid east.

      The electrolytes provide other nutrients and minerals important to the body during such and endurance feat as this. I have never heard of anybody trying to electrolyte protocol with the purpose of having the horse full of water prior to the start of a ride. It is more so to be certain they have higher Reserves of the other nutrients and minerals provided through electrolytes which help their bodies to better withstand the stresses of the event. And yes, they will drink more leading up to an event, but not necessarily drink in excess. It is helping guarantee they are properly hydrated - many horses don't drink as much as they should as often as they should ... at least in this humid environment (hell, I live my life in a state of slight dehydration most of the time. I rarely drink enough, but I can get by on this most days because I'm not exerting myself much. I definitely feel better and recover from things faster when I can force myself to drink more though! ...a habit I really need to be better about. Shame on me.)

      But yes....electrolytes means a host of other things beyond salt! And a preload dose is significantly less than during ride day as I usually dose a lot during ride day (before ride, during checks, maybe during loops, etc.) A predose is just one syringe ish worth with a sloppy mash (and the size of everyone's syringe dose may be slightly different in this convo...I don't have mine near to see volume but I'll tell you another time :-) ). Nothing crazy, but it has made a difference for my girl in her vet scores and drinking . Though I know my horse may not need as much as others from experience.

      I plan to change my electrolyte protocol a little bit this year. I have not as of yet electrolyted while out on trail. Very few times have we had a ride where it would have made an obvious difference...or so I thought! However, after riding with my mentor for a few different events last year and noticing how she provides doses of electrolytes on trail, I plan to change what I am doing to match. She provides electrolytes only in places where the horses have stopped to drink. She allows the horse to drink first from the source, then electrolytes them, then flushes their mouth with water from the source. It is always good to flush a horse's mouth with water or a slime mix after electrolyting to help prevent ulcers forming in their mouths. (I've watched a lot of the upper echelon Riders do this. It makes sense to me.)

      I learned a lot more about electrolyting last year through my experiences crewing for upper level riders and longtime riders that I never put into words online, but I'd be more than happy to share my experience and learning with you sometime if you want. You've got my email and cell. Happy to share. Just lazy about putting it into a coherent blog post :-p I should be less lazy...maybe one of these days!