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The Importance of Salt in Your Horses Diet

By: Lori Underwood

Do Horses Need Salt in Their Diets?

Yes, horses definitely need salt in their diet! Salt, or Sodium Chloride, is an important macro-mineral that performs many different functions in the horse’s body, which is made up of 70% water. The intake of salt directly relates to the amount of water that a horse drinks, and the resulting function of the circulatory, nervous, digestive, lymphatic, and excretory systems.

Salt helps to regulate and maintain the PH levels of blood, blood volume, and blood pressure, as well as cell pressure. It transports glucose, a simple sugar that provides a substantial amount of energy, across cell membranes, and is a major component of extracellular fluid.

Salt is also responsible for aiding the neuro-muscular system by facilitating the transmission of electrical impulses through the nervous system, which ultimately signals the muscle fibers to contract, allowing for controlled movement.

Salt Blocks for Horses

What Happens if a Horse Doesn't get Salt?

Without an adequate amount of salt in a horse's diet, many bodily systems and functions will suffer, often to the point of serious health and performance issues.

The first thing that happens when a horse fails to take in an adequate amount of salt is a reduction in the amount of water that they drink, as it is the blood sodium level that triggers the desire for water. This can start a dehydration cycle that can result in an increased risk of impaction colic as digestive function decreases and a decrease in blood volume and pressure, slowing the transportation of oxygen and nutrients throughout the body.

Without enough salt, the horse's neuro-muscular system will suffer diminished function due to a slowing of the electrical impulses which communicate information between the nerves and the muscles.

Symptoms of Salt Deficiency in Horses

A horse lacking enough salt in their diet may show symptoms such as general dehydration, weight loss, a dull coat, loss of coordination, decreased strength, and licking or eating non-food items (a condition called pica) such as dirt, walls, trees, and rocks, in an effort to find salt.

Do Horses Need Salt Daily?

Yes, horses need salt in their diets daily. An 1100 lb., sedentary horse will require an average of 25-30 grams (approx. 1 ounce) of salt per day, which is the equivalent of about 2 rounded tablespoons. As a horse’s workload and/or the temperatures increase, their salt requirement may increase to as much as 200 grams (approx. 7 ounces) per day for a horse doing heavy work and/or sweating a lot in a very hot environment.

While a day of missed salt is unlikely to have serious health consequences, horses should have access to salt at all times, if possible, as they are good at regulating their salt intake to meet their needs.

What Kind of Salt Should I Give my Horse?

There are several different types of salt available for horses, including white table salt, red mineralized salt, Himalayan salt, and sea salt. These types come in 2 primary forms; loose salt and block salt/salt lick. Deciding which type and form to use for your horses is largely a personal preference.

White table salt (sodium chloride) may be all a horse needs to meet their salt requirements. Red mineral salt is also a popular choice, and it contains other trace minerals such as copper, zinc, magnesium, cobalt, iron, and iodine; however, most of these minerals are included in commercial feeds and may be redundant for horses on a well-balanced diet. This is also true of iodized table salt; it may be more iodine than is required for a horse on a commercial ration. That is not to say that over-feeding trace minerals will cause a problem for the horse, as the amounts are low, but supplemented salt is more expensive than straight table salt.

Is Himalayan Salt Better for Horses?

Himalayan salt is the purest form of salt, and in block form, it holds up well to weather exposure, but neither it nor sea salt, offer a notable advantage over more traditional salt offerings.

Feeding Loose Salts to Horses

Loose Salts Versus Block Salts for Horses

Loose salt is either added to the horse's feed in precise amounts or offered in a bucket for free choice consumption. An advantage of adding salt to the horse's feed is the ability to control the amount of salt the horse consumes, to ensure that they are getting exactly what they need. Disadvantages are that some horses may turn up their nose at grain that is too salty if their salt requirements have been satisfied, or we may neglect to provide enough salt for the horse as work and weather increase their requirements. Loose salt provided in a bucket for free choice access is a good system, however, the bucket needs to be protected from the weather.

Salt blocks, or salt licks, are a popular way to offer salt, but these were originally utilized for cattle and some horses find the texture of the blocks too rough for their tongues. This can cause them to try biting or chewing the blocks instead, which is hard on their teeth and jaws. In addition, the blocks can be very cold and hard in the wintertime, which makes many horses reluctant to lick or bite them.

Small blocks, which will last a single horse 1-2 months, are often hung on the wall of a stall, while large blocks which can last a year or more for a single horse, are often placed in a run-in shed, or in the pasture. Blocks or licks which are not protected from the weather will disintegrate over time, so putting them under a cover is important. A small block placed in the feed tub will also disintegrate when it becomes wet with saliva as the horse eats their grain. This can create a salty, mushy mess that can make them reluctant to eat at all. A separate tub is recommended for offering salt in block or lick form. Small blocks can also be hung, some on a rope already inserted in the block, or in a small block holder that attaches to a wall. Large blocks can be placed in a ground holder that is designed for the task

Many owners and caregivers provide several salt options for their horses, such as small white blocks in the stalls, with a large red mineral block in the field, or a bucket of loose salt in the field, with loose salt also added to the daily ration. Some offer Himalayan salt block “toys” in the stall, and a bucket of loose mineral salt in the field. Some owners just offer a single small block on the wall of the stall, and that seems to work just fine for most horses as well.

Trial and error the process until your horse is consuming salt regularly, without seeming starved for it, and is showing no signs of salt deficiency. The key is to ensure that your horse has access to salt on a daily basis, in a form that the horse is willing to utilize. If an acceptable form of salt is available, they are generally very successful at managing their salt intake, and meeting fluctuating needs, without much additional help from us!