SALT, The Horse's Super Supplement
Updated: May 11, 2020
One of the subjects that I loved educating myself on over the years is the importance of salt in a horse's diet. Years ago, I read an article detailing an account of wild horses spending more time searching for minerals and salt than for daily water. This prompted me to understand just how essential this nutrient is for my horses.
Salt is an essential electrolyte for horses. Outside of water, it is the only nutrient for which horses actively search. Wild horses often travel miles to find salt.
Horses require salt for critical functions. Salt, or to be more specific Sodium Chloride (NaCl), is necessary for the horse's health and well-being. Sodium is an essential electrolyte that helps maintain the balance of water in and around the body's cells. It is also essential for proper muscle contraction, nerve impulses, and absorption of nutrients. Chloride is an essential electrolyte important in balancing the blood PH levels and extracellular fluid volume. Additionally, chloride combines with hydrogen in the stomach to make hydrochloric acid, a powerful digestive enzyme that is responsible for the breakdown of proteins.
A 1,100-lb horse requires a minimum of 2 tablespoons of salt per day. Commercial feeds usually contain between .5%-1% of salt. If the label doesn't include it, you may have to contact your manufacturer to find out the exact amount of salt in your grain. Once you know how much salt is in your grain, you can calculate your horse's current salt intake before adding additional salt to his daily feeding plan. For instance, if you feed your horse 4 quarts of grain per day and your grain contains 1% Salt or Sodium Chloride, your horse is receiving approximately 2.56 tablespoons of salt per day. At a maintenance level, or for an idle horse, this meets your horse’s daily salt requirements.
However, with extensive exercise and hot climates, salt intake requirements can increase to 6 or 8 tablespoons per day. Your horse can lose up to four gallons of perspiration per hour when exercised in hot and humid conditions. Perspiration is predominantly water and minerals such as sodium, chloride, and potassium. Hay and grass intake provides almost no sodium but plenty of potassium and chloride. Therefore, sodium is the electrolyte that needs the most consideration for additional supplementation.
Assuming your horse is getting enough 'maintenance' sodium in their daily grain, you can supplement sodium on an as-needed basis. Providing an extra tablespoon or two of salt or electrolytes on days of heavy exercise, travel, stress, or hot weather conditions may be all your horse needs. If you are unsure your horses are meeting their required sodium, providing a free-choice salt block is the first step.
Adding a Salt Block
Keeping a salt block available to your horses at all times may provide them with all the salt needed to maintain their NaCl levels. However, it is important to keep in mind the initial use of salt blocks or licks were intended for cattle, who have scratchy tongues. If you notice your horse constantly licking the salt block or developing an irritation on his tongue, you may need to supplement with loose salt in a bucket or in the grain. IMPORTANT NOTE: Always give your horse loose salt or electrolytes before or during eating. If electrolytes are given consistently on an empty stomach, there is a real risk your horse may develop ulcers.
If horses do not have enough salt in their diet for weeks or months, they can develop a salt deficiency. Horses with minor salt deficiencies develop subtle signs and may exhibit eating or licking unusual things such as dirt, wood fencing, pitchforks, metal, and bark. (Though this behavior does not necessarily mean a salt deficiency.) A serious clinical sign of salt deficiency is a decrease in water intake, which is closely associated with dehydration and puts the horse at a higher risk for colic.
Horses rarely consume too much salt naturally. Though extremely rare, if water is limited or unavailable, salt toxicosis can occur when too much salt is ingested. Horses that overeat salt may exhibit signs of diarrhea, frequent urination and, in advanced cases, can lead to death. It is critical to make sure your horses always have access to fresh water.
All Salt is Not Created Equal
Rocks mined from underground salt deposits are quite possibly among the best sources and are the easiest way to offer natural salt to your horses. They provide a variety of trace minerals that plain NaCl salt does not. Common sources are from the Great Salt Lake in Utah, such as the Redmond Rock, and from the Himalayan Mountains, the Horsemen's Pride Himalayan Rock Salt Block. Salt rocks are an excellent way to provide your horse with additional free-choice access to salt.
Plain white table salt, available at your grocery store, is processed to remove all minerals except NaCl. This is the most economical way to supplement salt in your horses' diet. You can provide it in small amounts in the grain or free-choice in a separate bucket.However, be aware that most plain table salts have an anti-caking agent added such as Calcium Silicate. I found Himalayan Salt to be the most readily available form of loose salt without any of the 'extra' ingredients.
Electrolyte supplements contain some NaCl, but may not be enough to meet your horse's daily need for salt. Generally, electrolyte supplements are meant to replace electrolytes during perspiration loss, but are not meant to replace the daily supplement for salt. Many electrolyte supplements contain sugar as the first ingredient to make it more palatable for horses, so it's essential to read the label. Your supplement should contain approximately 13 grams of chloride, 6 grams of sodium, and 5 grams of potassium. Perfect Balance Electrolyte by Peak Performance Nutrients is an excellent example of a balanced electrolyte supplement, formulated to replace electrolytes lost through sweat and without the added sugar.
So, What Should You Do?
Evaluate whether your horse needs to be supplemented with salt. With my horses, I started by providing free-choice salt rocks in their stalls. I offer each of my horses the Redmond Rock and Himalayan Salt Rock simultaneously. To my surprise, each horse had its own individual preference. Cole has both rocks in his stall (and uses both), Raven prefers the Himalayan Salt rock, and Dory prefers the Redmond Rock. On unusually hot days, or days when the horses get worked extensively, I provide additional electrolytes on an as-needed basis.