Horse Electrolytes: Sweetened or Unsweetened?

Electrolytes are necessary for horses that sweat. Without proper electrolyte supplementation, horses are at best unable to perform optimally, and at worst are susceptible to health problems. With so many electrolyte supplements on the market, it is difficult to decipher which ones represent the greatest value to horsemen.

Aside from the inclusion of specific electrolytes in recommended ratios, there is another criterion that crops up when comparing electrolyte supplements: the amount of sugar used in the formulation. Is sugar an appropriate ingredient in an equine electrolyte? If so, how much is tolerable?

The theory behind using sugar (typically dextrose or glucose) in equine electrolyte supplements undoubtedly stems from studies in humans that suggest sodium is more efficiently absorbed in the presence of glucose. Using these studies as a foundation, dextrose or glucose is frequently added to human-grade electrolyte supplements.

While the trend carried over into the equine industry, it does not appear as though sugar aids in electrolyte absorption in horses, as it does in humans. Two separate studies showed that neither dextrose nor glucose increased electrolyte uptake. Researchers remain unclear as to why humans and horses differ in their ability to absorb electrolytes.

What is clear, however, is the fact that sugar is not an important ingredient in equine electrolyte supplements. If dextrose or glucose is a primary ingredient, you might want to pass on that supplement and find one that contains adequate levels of actual electrolytes (sodium and chloride (salt), and potassium, for instance) as main ingredients. Additional minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, iron, manganese, and zinc are also beneficial in an electrolyte as these minerals can be depleted by sweating.

Take-home message

A small amount of sugar is acceptable in an electrolyte supplement as long as essential electrolytes and minerals are included in the proper ratios. Sugar can increase palatability, which ensures the electrolyte is consumed by the horse. Large quantities of sugar reduce the amount of electrolytes received and are not beneficial in electrolyte replacement therapy. By comparing labels and asking questions of the manufacturers you’ll find the best electrolyte for your horse!


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