In the Lab: Science and Equine Hydration Therapy
Water comprises an enormous part of the horse’s body: foals are about 80% water and adult horses about 65% water. When you think about the average size of an adult horse, that’s a lot of water.
Up to 50% of the body’s water is contained inside the cells, while 14% surrounds the cells and blood vessels. Blood vessels hold approximately 5% of the horse’s total body fluid—a proportion which is subject to rapid fluctuation. The GI tract stores 30% of the body’s water in the large intestine and cecum.
Water accounts for 85% of the horse’s brain, 75% of muscle mass, and 30% of bone.
Obviously, adequate hydration isn’t just important; it’s critical to the health of every system in the horse’s body.
Hydration and the horse
Two years ago when I discovered the Horse Hydrator and its ability to filter contaminants including heavy metals, lead, chlorine, and mercury, I was intrigued to learn more about hydration beyond the simple understanding that horses need good, clean water to drink.
Lush, green pastures typically contain 60–80% moisture, so horses on pasture for 10–24 hours get a lot of their hydration needs from the grass. Hay only provides 12–15% moisture and pelleted feeds on average provide less than 15% moisture. Cold weather can affect horses’ willingness to keep hydrated. Other factors that influence hydration include changes in barometric pressure, increased heat and humidity, increased workload, travel, stress, and illness.
I have long been a proponent of wet feed. This is because a wet feed or soaked feed mimics the moisture in fresh pasture. When the feed is wet, the GI tract does not have to pull as much moisture from the intestinal tract walls as it does when feeding hay or dry pelleted feed. Another benefit of feeding a wet feed is a reduced incidence of choke. It is interesting that in the UK, feeding soaked or wet feed is more common than in the US.
The equine stomach holds three to four gallons of water. A 1000-lb. horse consumes 10 gallons of water per day on average, while an increased workload or elevated environmental temperatures will increase that to as much as 16 gallons. On hot, humid days a working horse can lose up to four gallons of water an hour—a rate that cannot be replaced immediately by drinking.
Sweat and electrolytes
Racehorses can lose three gallons of sweat during a workout, and endurance horses can lose more than that: six to eight gallons during a competition ride. Equine exercise and physiology specialist Dr. David Marlin recently stated in Britain’s Horse and Hound magazine that a 1% loss of hydration can lead to a 4% reduction in performance.
Note that this reduction is due not only to water loss but also loss of electrolytes. The sweat of a horse contains high levels of electrolytes that are isotonic: having the same level of salinity as the blood. Compared to humans, horses lose more electrolytes through their sweat than we do.
Excessive sweating will cause electrolyte and water loss, and the result is dehydration. Some horses, when dehydrated, will actually stop sweating. With over 30% of the body’s water residing in the GI tract, dehydration can cause dysfunction in the intestines and hindgut resulting in impaction or, conversely, loose stool. Anxiety and muscle twitching are signs of severe dehydration, as is tying up. Horses can become dehydrated in cold weather because, as the temperature of the water lowers, the horse is less likely to drink.
High temperatures, especially when coupled with high humidity, can require even a retired horse on pasture to drink more water and need electrolyte support. When the horse is exercised in hot, humid weather, the need for water and electrolytes increases.
Some horses can become dehydrated because they are non-sweaters, while other anhidrotic horses drink more and urinate more. Dehydration is a consequence of anhidrosis, not the cause. I had an anhidrotic horse who, several years after I sold him, was diagnosed with PSSM. There is conjecture in the equine veterinary community of a link between metabolic diseases and anhidrosis.
Wellington, Florida is one of the best places to see the effects on performance horses of heat, humidity, and the stress of intense training and competition. Under those conditions, there is the added muscle glycogen depletion factor. When muscle glycogen is depleted, fatigue happens rapidly.
Good drinkers, poor drinkers
Some horses are good drinkers, and their owners and riders seldom have to worry about hydration unless the temperature or training increases the horses’ sweating. Then there are horses that are not good drinkers. I have one in my barn. I think she might have been a camel in a past life, as I have never seen a horse drink so little in comparison to the other horses, and yet be 28 years old.
I have had horses that were good drinkers until they got on a trailer, or went to a show. I’ve known horses extremely sensitive to heat and humidity that could become dehydrated relatively quickly.
Water as a delivery system
Several companies have products that are added to the horse’s water to provide electrolytes and sugar. I love this concept—water as a delivery system for basic hydration and critical nutrients like electrolytes—although some products have ingredients in them that I would not use:
- Fumaric acid (food additive that enhances flavor and sourness)
- Citric acid (made from GMO corn, predominately produced in China)
- Natural flavors (created by the fragrance industry in France; a “natural flavor” could be a combination of over 200 different chemicals)
- Sodium chloride (table salt: highly refined, bleached, and devoid of the valuable trace elements found in sea salt)
- Dextrose (made from GMO corn via hydrolysis of cornstarch; a commonly used sweetener in packaged and processed foods)
- FD&C aluminum lake (an artificial color synthetically produced from coal tar or petroleum; commonly used in eye shadows, mascara, nail polish, lip balm, lipstick, lip liner, sunscreens, supplements, and some opioid pain medications)
- Artificial flavors (chemical cocktails very similar to “natural” flavorings; according to Scientific American, “There is little substantive difference in the chemical compositions of natural and artificial flavorings.”
- Vegetable oil (highly refined, solvent-extracted; usually blended from GMO corn and GMO soy sources.
What should a hydration formula do?
Because the horse’s sweat contains high levels of electrolytes (sodium, potassium, chloride), a hydration formula should provide these minerals. Dextrose is commonly added to equine electrolyte formulas on the theory that sugar helps the absorption of sodium as it does in humans. However, two separate studies conducted by Kentucky Equine Research showed that neither glucose nor dextrose increased electrolyte uptake.
There are also the muscle glycogen replacement needs of horses. Depleted glycogen in the muscles leads to high lactate levels, which contributes to muscle fatigue. Horses can’t replenish glycogen as quickly as humans do. Various studies point out that the re-synthesis of glycogen after exercise requires intracellular water and electrolytes.
Because water is both an essential component of the body system and a delivery mechanism, I started to wonder what else could be added to the water to support health, well-being, and performance.
Support for the gut, support for stress
Since the GI tract is one of the foundations of health, I began experimenting with adding fennel seeds to the horses’ water. In Ayurvedic medicine, fennel plays a special role in digestion. It is tridoshic, meaning balancing to the body and the three basic body types: air, fire, and water/earth. Fennel seeds enhance digestion and can help relieve gas.
The horses were unconcerned with the fennel in their water, so I added holy basil, a sacred Ayurvedic plant that is revered for its tridoshic and adaptogenic properties. Holy Basil has been shown to reduce cortisol levels and can increase levels of antioxidant enzymes including SOD and catalase.
Even my horse Lionheart—aka Mr. Suspicious—was happy to drink his bucket of water with both fennel and holy basil in it.
Mitochondrial support and ATP
What would happen, I asked myself, if I added the Ayurvedic bio-resin shilajit to the water? Shilajit supports cellular mitochondria that are responsible for cellular respiration and energy production—including the essential ATP. The traditional way of consuming shilajit in India and Nepal is as a tea, taken once or several times a day.
If I added shilajit to the horses’ water, would they drink it? The answer turned out to be yes.
Augmenting the water
In my experiments with adding different foods to the water, I noticed something unexpected. When given a choice between a bucket of plain water and a bucket of augmented water, my good drinkers and my poor drinker both preferred the augmented water to plain water. All of the horses drank more water overall when they had a bucket of augmented water. This became striking when, on an unseasonably hot day with winter coats not fully shed out, they sweated and they hydrated themselves first with the augmented water, and then with the plain water.
From research to development
After all of this thinking about horse hydration and how it should work, I knew what was needed. I wanted a fast-acting formula that would increase hydration, replace electrolytes lost during sweat, support ATP energy production by the mitochondria, support muscle glycogen replacement, protect the intestinal mucosa from excess stomach acid, provide super antioxidants to reduce oxidative stress, and reduce excess cortisol, which is a by-product of stress.
So began the journey of making a paste product that could be delivered by syringe directly into the horse’s mouth. There are lots of products that deliver electrolytes this way, but in studying hydration and the performance horse, I knew we could deliver more recovery support than just electrolytes.
BioStar will be bringing two new products out of the lab. One is a water enhancer with electrolytes, shilajit, sea vegetables, and GI tract support. The other is a unique oral paste for increased hydration and muscle, gut, stress, and antioxidant support.
Like all BioStar products, our new formulas are made with whole food and organic ingredients in our own facility, and tested for purity and performance.
Stay tuned for more info and an official product launch next month (June 2018)!