In which electrolytes are discussed and (hopefully) de-mystified

If there's anything that boggles Green Bean endurance riders 
(and experienced competitors too!)
it's the topic of electrolytes.

The not-very-secret electrolyte recipe we use.
This generates enough electrolytes for two typical horses on an average 50.
Please note that this makes 14 of what most people call a "double dose."
We call it a single dose.  

The consensus among riders and vets is clear: elytes are absolutely vital for competition, totally optional for competition, or  completely contraindicated for competition.   

The best brand of electrolytes is definitely Endura Max.  
Unless it's Dyna Spark.  
Or possibly Northern Lytes.  
Or Stress Dex.  
Or Electo Ease, Acculyte, Finish Line, or some homemade formula mix made of lite salt and Tums.  

For mixers, everyone uses applesauce.
Except those who use yogurt.  
Or Maalox.  
Or Pro-CMC.  Or water.  Or Gatorade.  Or beer.

So, that's not confusing at all.  Right?
Photo: M. Bretherton

I take electrolytes very seriously.  If you don't, or you don't know why you should, I direct you to two articles written by Susan Garlinghouse, DVM.  As with everything Doc Garlinghouse writes, these articles make complex issues relatively easy to understand.  Her science is sound, and her writing is clear.  

The publisher of Endurance 101 has mirrored the articles to keep them safe for eternity.  Go there now and learn:

In this post, I'll describe what Hana gets for 50-mile rides.  

I will also describe what Fiddle gets.  These two things are not the same.

Hana is pretty typical of endurance horses in our camp.

14.2 hand Arab mare.  Chestnut. 19 years old, about 800 pounds.
Usually finishes 50-milers in 8-8.5 hours.
Photo: M. Bretherton  

Hana eats well, drinks well, and keeps a good steady pace on the trail.  She is not a voracious eater, but she isn't picky either.  She will not eat every speck of her beet pulp, so we can't dump stuff into her feed and be absolutely certain that she got it all.  All her electrolytes are delivered via syringe.

Here is Hana's electrolyte regimen for a normal 50-mile ride in average terrain:

Thursday (ride day -2) : nothing.

Friday (ride day -1) Since this is the day before a ride, she may get a dose in the afternoon, and definitely gets a dose at bedtime.

Saturday (ride day) :
1 full dose before the start line.
1 dose at each vet check.
1 dose after the finish line.
1 dose at bedtime.

Hana also gets regular doses of OTC Jug and a probiotic during 50-milers,
which seems to keep her energy level strong and stable.

If any of the loops are especially long (20 miles, or 3+ hours), or if the weather is especially hot, Hana may get an additional dose or half-dose on the trail at about the mid-way point of the loop.

Sunday (post ride day, usually a travel day):  1 dose before departure.  Sometimes a dose with dinner.

Fiddle is less typical.

16 hand Standardbred mare. Dark bay.  13 years old.  About 1100 pounds.
Usually finishes 50-milers in 7-7.5 hours.
Photo: M. Bretherton

Fee's electrolyte needs are significantly higher.  She is a voracious eater of beet pulp and hay, and she is pretty good about drinking water at puddles, tanks, or whatever.  I can throw supplements into her mash overnight and be sure that she will get all of it, but if I'm in a hurry (to leave camp at the end of a vet check, for example), she gets a syringe.

I also substitute Pro-CMC for some or all of the applesauce in the electrolyte recipe if we are going further than 50 miles, or if the going will be slow (and thus, requiring more doses).

Here's Fiddle's regimen for a typical 50-mile ride in terrain of average difficulty:

Wednesday night:  a scoop of EnduraMax in her beet pulp.  This is in addition to the twice-daily 1-oz scoop of salt in her beet pulp.

Thursday: (usually a travel day): a dose  of electrolytes before departure, and another dose at bedtime.

Friday (ride day -1) : a dose after breakfast and again at bedtime.

Saturday (ride day) :
1 full dose before the start line.
1/2 dose every 60-90 minutes on the trail, unless a vet check is near.
1 full dose at each vet check.
1 full dose after the finish line.
1 full dose at bedtime.
I use wide-mouth ketchup bottles to store the elytes in my saddle bag.
A syringe will fit through the mouth of the bottle to suck up a dose.
With practice, it's possible to fill the syringe and dose the horse from the saddle.

Sunday (usually a travel day): a dose of electrolytes before departure and another dose after dinner.

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday:  any electrolytes left over from the event are squirted onto her beet pulp until they are used up.

*It's important to note that, whenever possible, we also squirt a syringe or two of water into the horse's mouth after dosing.  This helps prevent mouth sores.

But how do I know that Fiddle needs so much more?
Experience (and doing things wrong) has taught me that my big, dark, heavy-muscled, fast-moving horse needs more elytes than any other horse I've used in competition.  If her heartrate hangs up, if she's reluctant to eat or drink on the trail, if she sandbags at mile 30 when she would normally be jogging along happily, it's almost always because I didn't give her enough.

One time it was cool and lovely (60 degrees, light breeze) on the trail, so I didn't dose her as heavily as usual, but the ground was soggy and made the WORK a lot harder.  We had to pull at 25 miles that day, because she got tired and peed pink.  Totally my fault.

So what does that mean for you and for your horse?
If your horse is fairly typical (in other words, similar in size, shape, age, and breeding to Hana), you can start with a routine similar to hers.  Tinker with the dosage sizes in training, giving more or less, and keep track of the horse's response.

(NOTE: few horses will ever like electrolytes.  It's like eating a salt sandwich.  Blech.)

Mess around with your heart rate monitor, and see if the electrolytes improve recovery.  Pay attention to your horse's willingness to eat and drink while using the electrolytes.  Some horses refuse to eat with the salt taste in their mouths, others don't seem to care.  Most will drink water more readily on the trail if they are given electrolytes before leaving the trailhead.

If your horse is larger, darker, moving significantly faster than Hana, or going over extreme terrain at speed, don't be surprised if you need more electrolytes to maintain a metabolic balance.  (You did read those Garlinghouse articles, didn't you?)

It would be lovely if there was an app for this.  You know, a nifty little gadget on my phone that would tell me how much to dose, at what intervals, given each horse's specific needs.

But that doesn't exist (yet).

So, the best practice right now is for riders to experiment, pay attention to results, and be prepared to change things according to the results.

Comments, questions, thoughts, anecdotes?

The box is open.


  1. Excellent post (as always). I have ridden three horses in endurance: my big, dark muscly Standardbred needed less electrolytes than my large, pale, go slow Arab X! ALL the regimes you described are electrolyte heavy compared to what we do: 1 full dose in feed the night before a 50 miler, plus a 1/2 dose in a molasses/water mix at each vet check. Then again we ride in the winter...

    1. We are "electrolyte heavy" for average riders, I think. I used about 1/3 of this with the Toad, and he was bigger, darker, and a bit heavier than Hana. But he never went fast because his brain fell out at speed, and then I'd hit the dirt. There's more than one way to boink at a ride...

    2. I came back to this after you put it up on FB again. I went to a seminar on the weekend which basically said that electrolytes given more than 12 hours before a ride do nothing for electrolyte levels in the horse... All they do is make sure the horse is fully hydrated before the ride by making them drink. So you might as well just use salt pre ride, and save the expensive e'lytes for ride day.... I'm not sure I'm ready to give away the pre ride Enduramax just yet as it's working for us so far, but it's food for thought...

  2. Aarene, thank you so much for this! I have a heavily muscled dark non-Arab that had metabolic issues at her first two 50s. The vets gave me great elyte recommendations, very similar to what you do with Fiddle. I'm bookmarking this post for future reference. Thank you!

    P.S. LOVE the ketchup bottle idea for carrying electrolyte preparations in saddle bags!

  3. I'm not an endurance rider* but I've noticed that my horses come through the hot Australian summer much better since I added (and then upped) rock salt to their diets. One morning I couldn't make it out to to the ponies and the agistment owner fed them, he didn't add the salt and the difference between the amount of water they drunk (and that day was hot! Over 45oC!) that day and the next, which was cooler was staggering...

    (*I'd like to be but my nearly 20 year old standardbred gelding, who had 43 starts and a jumping career with a former owner, is showing signs of arthritis. Not enough to retire him on but enough that I'm not comfortable doing much more than 20km fun rides with him. Maybe with the next one.)

  4. An interesting correlation I've noticed in my own small experience is that my horse who consumes more salt on his OWN at home (via a salt block) needs more elytes than my horse who never once in 5 years could be bothered to lick the salt block or even nibble on loose salt. Possibly due to metabolic need? Or just learned efficiency? Or the high-salt diet horse is "used" to having higher concentrations in his system so thus needs more elytes to maintain his "normal" during a ride?

    That's not to say my low-salt horse (a more heavily muscled, non-Arab, stout little guy who successfully got me through Tevis among other ride) didn't receive any electrolytes at a ride. Rather that his needs weren't as great so he didn't require as much. He would get quite unhappy and go off his food if dosed too high. His regimine was similar to Hanna's, but perhaps with smaller doses (1 scoop Enduramax) and generally in his food, rarely syringed.

  5. Great post. I don't electrolyte every horse I do LD/endurance on by any means. Definitely agree on paying attention and adjusting methods on each individual as an individual.

  6. Very informative. We need a "like" button. I'll be reading those articles. The horse expert's clear consensus on everything...hilarious...because it's so true. 3 experts, 4 opinions. Figuring out what works in your circumstances? Priceless.

  7. Thanks for sharing what works for you, Aarene! Because I'm doing LDs, I haven't taken electrolyting too seriously yet, but I do add a 1/2 Tbsp of salt to all my horse's feedings all year long, regardless of work level, and I add 1/2-1 Tbsp more to post-ride mashes, with the amount depending on heat, humidity, and difficulty of the work. I also supplement with 5000 mg magnesium citrate once a day and add more on challenging work days. I'm thinking about starting to branch out a bit and do some experimentation to see if I see improvement in his performance, and this post has gotten me motivated to start!:)

  8. When we traveled to the southern, CA desert - I noticed that Himalayan rock salt, free choice was preferred. I found that interesting since that is what we give Farah & she always drinks like a champ.

  9. Where can you buy Northern Lytes? I'm from Canada


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