Summertime Recovery Tips for Horses
We tend to work our horses harder in the warmer months, when recovery is more of a challenge. The harder the horse’s body works, the more energy it burns, and the byproduct of this energy process is heat. As a result, keeping horses cool and hydrated in hot and/or humid weather becomes a primary focus of horse owners in the summertime.
The body’s cooling efficiency is determined by environmental temperature and humidity, as well as the physical and metabolic condition of each individual horse. While thoroughbreds and Arabians have an easier time staying cool, heavily muscled horses like quarter horses and warmbloods can face bigger challenges when dissipating internal body heat.
The more fit the horse is, the more efficient the horse becomes at dissipating heat; horses that are overweight can be hampered in the recovery phase by the fat layer that traps heat. Yet even fit horses, when working in conditions of high heat and humidity, will lose varying percentages of water and electrolytes, and can be slow to replace muscle glycogen.
Cooling down: Walking, scraping and rinsing
During warm months, the cool-down phase of walking after a training session helps to redistribute the blood in the body. In the cool-down phase more blood is circulated to the skin, lungs and organs, and less to the muscles. This helps pull heat out of the horse’s muscles and dissipate it through the skin and through the lungs. Walking helps restore the horse’s heart rate and other vital signs to a normal range.
One of the most important parts of cooling the horse’s body with water is the sweat scraping. Water left on the coat, particularly in humid conditions, acts as an insulator. Don’t forget to towel-dry the legs as well.
Additionally, there are many water-based rinses that you can sponge on your horse to ease sore muscles and aid in the cooling process. One of the easiest ingredients to add to water is apple cider vinegar, which provides cooling properties for the skin.
Water for hydration
It’s good practice to check the hydration of your horse with the simple skin pinch test. Pinch a small piece of the skin in the neck or shoulder area. If it stays elevated or “tented” for as little as three seconds, your horse is moderately dehydrated. At four seconds or more, your horse is severely dehydrated.
Capillary refill time is another good test for hydration. Press a finger to the upper gum for one or two seconds. When you remove your finger the normal, pink color of the gum should return in one to two seconds. If it takes longer for the color to return, your horse is probably dehydrated.
When horses sweat to cool themselves, they not only lose fluid, but also massive amounts of electrolytes. Muscle recovery and the synthesis of glycogen after exercise is dependent on intracellular water and electrolytes. Horses can’t replenish muscle glycogen as quickly as humans do.
Electrolytes combined with water provides fast delivery through the oral transmucosal pathway. Oral transmucosal absorption is rapid because of the rich vascular supply to the oral mucosa. Even the respiratory tract provides a large mucosal surface for water, nutrients, and electrolyte absorption.
A study conducted at Michigan State University by Hal Schott, DVM, showed that adding electrolytes, particularly salt added to water, helps to maintain the horse’s thirst drive.
An initial drink of salt water improved recovery of sweat fluid losses because horses drank more water when it was offered a few minutes later. With that initial drink of salt water, the salt concentration in the blood remains elevated to activate the drinking centers of the brain. In contrast, horses that were offered plain water for their initial drink did not drink further during the initial hour of recovery, despite the fact that they remained partially dehydrated.“
Electrolytes added to feed is a much slower delivery system than electrolytes in paste or added to a bucket of water. Don’t depend on a salt lick or salt block for all the electrolyte needs of your horse in hot weather. If your horse is dehydrated, it is especially important not to add electrolytes to the feed. Electrolytes given without water can cause further dehydration.
After your horse is cool, provide electrolytes either by paste syringe or in water. Prepare two buckets of water: one with the electrolytes, one with plain water.
Keep in mind that some horses can develop ulcers to the mouth and stomach from the overuse of electrolytes. Some horses are sensitive to paste-based electrolytes given on an empty stomach unless gastric protection is added to (or included with) the electrolyte formula.
The role of amino acids in the recovery phase
Research has shown that the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and the essential amino acids fed after exercise can support muscle repair and growth.
Alfalfa pellets or cubes are a wonderful post-exercise recovery food because they provide the essential amino acids and BCAAs. (Adding a banana to the alfalfa pellets or cubes helps replenish glycogen and makes a good post-exercise snack.)
Antioxidants play multiple important roles
Key antioxidants include: vitamin E, vitamin D, beta-carotene, the carotenoids, vitamin C, CoQ10, SOD, selenium, zinc, copper, the flavonoids and flavonols, quercitin, and glutathione.
Antioxidants can limit the effects of oxidative stress and can assist in quicker recovery time after exercise, competition, or in countering the effects of environmental stressors. Antioxidants can also help reduce muscle damage from training, thereby lessening stiffness and soreness.
Senior horses and metabolic horses may have greater needs for protection against free radical damage.
Many whole foods for horses contain antioxidants and or support the body’s production of antioxidants. Some examples of this are: spirulina, astaxanthin, turmeric, kelp, medicinal mushrooms, peppermint, cinnamon, alfalfa, almonds, watermelon, papaya, mangoes, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, apples, carrots, bananas, rice bran, chia, fresh forage.
Supplements for recovery
Rebound EQ provides a blend of foods high in BCAAs and essential amino acids, plus bovine colostrum for immune support and for cellular repair of muscles and tissues.
Rebound EQ also provides a range of active, viable probiotic strains for the GI tract, along with the sea vegetable alaria (rich in macro- and micro-minerals, vitamins, fiber, and protein), plus smectite clay that can bind toxins at a greater rate than other clays. This formula is especially recommended for horses on layup from injury, horses coming back into work, or horses in the process of getting fitter. Can be used as needed.
StarLyte EQ provides a blend of mineral-dense salts from land and sea for electrolyte and trace mineral needs.
StarLyte EQ also provides the sea vegetable alaria for additional macro- and micro-minerals, vitamins, fiber, and protein. Contains organic mango powder for a healthy sodium/chloride balance in the body, and smectite clay to soak up exercise-induced toxins and free radicals. This formula is added to feed, not to water. Recommended for horses in light to moderate work.
Cool Star EQ is an Ayurvedic-based supplement that provides a blend of cooling and hydrating foods for horses. Helps to improve hydration balance by providing a variety of well-known Ayurvedic cooling foods and active probiotics.
Includes Hawaiian Black Lava salt which provides electrolytes, and activated charcoal for its detoxifying properties. Plus a blend of cooling foods including chia seeds, mango, parsley, butternut squash, cucumber, fennel seeds, sunflower seeds.
Contains BioStar’s BioFlora EQ probiotic with 100 billion CFUs per serving.
Cool Star EQ is particularly beneficial for horses that need additional support in heat and humidity.
Alixir EQ is a comprehensive water enhancer for performance horses, formulated to address electrolyte needs, cellular energy support, antioxidant support, protection of the GI tract, recovery and reduction of cortisol from stress.
Alixir EQ provides electrolytes from Celtic sea salt in the same ratio as sweat. Provides mineral and vitamin support from the sea vegetable alaria, shilajit for mitochondrial support and energy production including ATP and CoQ10.
Also includes: organic holy basil for adrenal and glandular support, which helps to normalize cortisol levels in the body. Provides medical-grade micro-crystalized aloe to coat the GI tract and protect intestinal mucosa.
Contains the Amazon fruit camu camu plus organic apple powder for antioxidant support via several components including beta carotene, the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, vitamin C, bioflavonoids, and quercitin.
Provides Organic barley grass powder (the grass not the grain) that supports the production of the super antioxidant SOD, plus camelina oil for its vitamin E content.
Alixir EQ goes to work fast in the body because it is a paste. The electrolytes in sea salt will not cause ulcerations in the mouth as other electrolytes can.
The new normal
According to data based on research by James Hansen, a retired NASA climate scientist and professor at Columbia University, summer temperatures have shifted towards more extreme heat over the past few decades.
His research showed that from 1951–1980, temperatures across a third of the Northern Hemisphere were near average or normal range, a third were considered cold, and a third were considered hot. Since then, summer temperatures have shifted drastically; from 2005–2015, two-thirds of the values were in the hot category, and nearly 15% were in a new category: “extremely hot”.
What this means for our horses, is that we have to be even more mindful and diligent about cool-down after exercise, electrolyte replacement, hydration, and recovery.
About the Author: With over 30 years experience in the equine and human supplement industry, Tigger Montague knows nutrition from the synthetic side as well as the whole food side. She started BioStar US in 2006 with formulas she created in her kitchen. Before she started the company, she was an avid rider and competitor with eventing and show jumping, until she got hooked on dressage in the late 1980’s. She has competed on horses she’s owned and trained all the way from training level to Grand Prix.
Hansen, J., Sato, M., Kharecha, P., von Schuckmann, K., Beerling, D. J., Cao, J., Marcott, S., Masson-Delmotte, V., Prather, M. J., Rohling, E. J., Shakun, J., Smith, P., Lacis, A., Russell, G., and Ruedy, R.: Young people’s burden: requirement of negative CO2 emissions, Earth Syst. Dynam., 8, 577–616, 2017.
Loving S. (2008). Electrolyte Basics. TheHorse.com. July 2008.