It’s free too. Next to air, this is the single most important factor in supporting good performance and maximizing response to training and conditioning. Water.
The horse’s body is about 70% water. From brain functioning to the cushion of joint cartilage and deformability of bones, water plays a critical role in the function of every cell. From a performance standpoint, water as sweat regulates body temperature to permit cellular reactions to continue normally. Water in the blood stream maintains blood volume and pressure to deliver nutrients to working tissues and remove waste materials. Water in and surrounding the cells facilitates nerve transmission and generation of energy. During recovery from exercise it takes 7 grams of water to replenish just 1 gram of glycogen.
Exercise generates tremendous amounts of heat. Because the horse can only survive with body temperature within a fairly narrow range, cooling mechanisms take precedence over all other functions needing water and the horse will continue to sweat until on the brink of death. Because of the rapid and large loss of water through sweat (minimum of at least 1 gallon/hour for the average horse), other body functions are rapidly compromised. In fact, inadequate body hydration likely accounts for more subpar performance than all other causes combined.
Research has revealed that as little as a 2% loss of body water weight can result in a 10% decrease in performance.
Having clean water available at all times, including as much as they want during and after exercise, is the first step in ensuring hydration is not suboptimal in hot weather. The horse also has to drink it.
How many times have you been away from home at a competition or ride only to find your horse won’t drink the water there? It’s extremely common. One solution is to bring water from home. A large picnic carrier filled with half water and half ice will survive even a long hot trip in the back of a truck. Most horses will also readily drink bottled water. Investing in a few 5 gallon jugs is well worth the small price. Also bring his bucket from home.
If you can’t always have your horse close to your truck and water, get the horse accustomed to a flavored water at home. Equine flavoring products can be used, preferably sugar free, or use a handful of feed. The advantage of the sugar free flavorings is they won’t support bacterial growth in the heat and are easier to clean out of the bucket.
Getting the water in is only half the battle. To keep it there your horse must have normal electrolyte levels both in the blood and in the tissues. It is especially important to stay on top of sodium and chloride by remembering to give the horse both his baseline salt requirement and to replace electrolytes lost in sweat. See this recent blog for details:
The next time your horse seems to be flagging in the heat remember the solution may be as simple as a long drink and electrolyte replacement. You will see the results within minutes.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD