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Recently my grandson was cleaning a stall and asked me why his horse licked so much salt. Instead of answering, I decided to quiz him and asked, do horses need salt, and can they get enough from a mineral block?
Horses need salt in their body for the proper function of their muscles and nerves. A typical horse requires about 10 grams of salt per day. However, horses that lose excessive fluid through sweat need more sodium than sedentary animals. Mineral blocks aren’t the preferred method of providing a horse salt.
Some horse owners stray from basic feeding principles and neglect their animal’s salt intake. This transgression can result in adverse health issues and suboptimal performance.
This article is one in a series I wrote about horses’ dietary needs. The previous article, What do Horses Eat? An Equine Nutrition Guide covers the basics you need to know to feed your horse correctly.
Horses need salt
Salt (sodium chloride) makes horses thirsty and causes them to drink water, which is needed, to replenish losses to keep their body functioning properly. If a horse doesn’t drink enough water, they risk dehydration, which causes a myriad of health issues.
Salt is comprised of two minerals, sodium, and chloride. Each of these minerals plays a pivotal role in your horse’s health. Sodium is essential for muscles to work correctly, nerves impulse travel, and assist in the digestion of protein.
Sodium is also crucial to the absorption of essential nutrients. Chloride helps move carbon dioxide from tissues to the lungs and help keep blood pH at proper levels.
For the horse’s body to work optimally, it’s essential to know the type of salt to give your horse and the correct amount they need. All horses won’t require the same amount of salt.
The amount needed is based on the activity level or your horse, the climate in your region, and the animal’s overall fitness level.
Symptoms of salt deficiency in horses
When a horse lacks sodium chloride, and they develop a deficiency which can lead to serious adverse health conditions. Some signs your horse may display when it has a deficiency of sodium chloride include:
Dehydration in horses is created by water and electrolyte depletion to the point it’s physically suffering; this occurs when animals lose more water than it’s replacing. Dehydration in horses is dangerous and can be fatal. The condition should be addressed directly.
The most common reason horses lose water is through sweat. Horses sweat to cool their bodies, and when they work hard in hot weather, they lose extreme amounts of fluid.
Failing to provide a viable water source or sick animals with diarrhea or fever also causes dehydration. Most of the time, you can cure dehydration by giving your animal water and electrolytes.
Reduced muscle coordination
Sodium is an ion that mixes with water and conducts electricity to nerves and helps muscles function properly. Horses without proper amounts of salt may have difficulty walking, muscle twitching, or spasms.
This disorder is most common after exercise, and the horse will typically look stiff, and its muscles are noticeably trembling. In horseman’s terms, the horse is “tying up.”
When salt imbalances severely decrease in relation to the body’s water content, the condition is referred to as hypervolemic hyponatremia. Treatment for hypervolemic hyponatremia may require administering electrolytes via an IV.
Abnormal eating habits
Horses deficient in sodium chloride may start eating strange things. If your horse begins licking things that contain trace amounts of salt, it could indicate that the horse is craving salt.
Some examples are licking dirt, rocks, or biting the bark of trees. Lack of minerals isn’t the only reason for this odd behavior, but it is a warning sign the horse may not be getting enough salt.
Equine anhidrosis is the inability of horses to sweat. There are several reasons horses suffer anhidrosis, and lack of suitable minerals is one. The disease is most prevalent in athletic horses living in hot climates.
If your horse’s mineral deficiency is not corrected, it can lead to weight loss, inadequate milk production in lactating mares, lethargy, stunted growth, and even anorexia.
How to determine the right amount of salt to feed your horse.
The standard 1,000 horse requires approximately two tablespoons of salt daily throughout the year to meet its essential maintenance needs. However, high-performance horses, because they sweat more, require increased amounts of sodium chloride.
Too much sodium chloride can cause problems for horses.
Salt toxicity or salt poisoning typically occurs when a horse doesn’t drink enough water to offset a high sodium chloride diet. This usually happens because a horse refuses to drink rancid water or lack an available source of water.
Also, horses fed improperly formulated feeds or animals not acclimated to high-salt diets are susceptible to salt poisoning. Salt poisoning affects the GI tract and the central nervous system and can cause blindness, seizures, and paralysis.
Forms of salt for horses
Horses get sodium chloride in hay and pasture grass, salt licks, and supplemented in their feed or added to water. Hay and silage typically don’t provide a sufficient amount for most animals, so mineral supplements are needed.
Salt blocks are widely used to supplement horses’ dietary needs. They are typically left in a stall or placed in a location where horses have free access to them. You can also purchase small salt blocks on a rope and hang it at a height that is easy for your horse to reach.
Unlike cattle, horses have a smooth tongue, and licking a salt block doesn’t provide them much of the mineral. It does work well for some horses; however, working horses typically can’t replenish their losses by licking a block.
Further, stall kept horses may become bored and continuously lick a salt block and become toxic.
Providing loose salt is a better way to deliver it to your animals. Adding it to their feed ensures they are getting their daily supplements and allows you to control the portions.
Loose salt can also be provided free in a pasture feeder; this ensures your horse can access sodium chloride in an easy to ingest form. Even horses that spend their days’ grazing may need some supplement.
What is the best salt lick for horses?
As I mentioned earlier, horses don’t typically meet their daily salt requirements by licking a block. But our protocol is to provide loose salt in our horses’ feed and have a white salt block available for them to lick when they feel like they need extra.
Are mineral blocks a good source of salt?
Mineral blocks are not ideal for providing horses daily salt needs. Like any licking block, they don’t deliver adequate portions to animals with a smooth tongue.
However, horses are individuals, and your animal may take to a mineral block and enjoy licking better than most other animals. The block is over ninety percent salt with additional essential other minerals, so it can’t hurt.
Just be sure and monitor your horse to ensure he gets his necessary amounts of vitamins and minerals.
How do wild horses get salt?
Horses survived thousands of years and harsh conditions because of their ability to adapt to their environments. In the wild, horses get salt in various ways based on where they live.
Some horses live in environments near coastlines where salt is plentiful. In this location, horses lick salty surfaces to meet their daily needs.
In other locations, horses obtain minerals by eating plants with trace minerals, or they may travel vast distances to places where salt is more plentiful.
Horses need sodium chloride for their bodies to function properly. Without the requisite amount of salt, a horse can become lethargic, tie up, and dehydrate. The best way to introduce sodium chloride to your horse’s diet is by sprinkling it over your horse’s feed.
A typical horse needs about two tablespoons of the mineral daily.
Do horses need salt blocks in the summer?
Horses especially need salt blocks because the high temperatures reached in the summer months cause them to lose essential minerals through sweating. They must replace the lost minerals, and salt blocks are a good source. It’s also essential that horses have fresh water and someplace to get out of the sun during the summer.
Do horses need a salt block in the winter?
Yes, horses need salt year-round to maintain a proper chemical balance. In the winter, some horses avoid drinking and are at risk of dehydration; salt makes them thirsty and encourages drinking.