Many horse owners provide their horses with a balanced diet but are unaware that salt plays a critical role in their long-term health. And since the horse’s natural diet is very poor in salt, you will need to find ways to add it to their diet.
If this is the first time getting a horse, the whole salt thing might come as a surprise for you. Today’s article aims to shed light on the salt licking behavior that many animals display, including horses.
Here’s what the phenomenon is all about.
Do Horses Need Salt Licks?
Yes, they do, but the answer is quite as simple. It all depends on how much the horse eats, how much water it drinks, and how active its lifestyle is. A horse engaging in strenuous physical activities throughout the day and sweating a lot will need more salt. That’s because the horse will sweat a lot, causing an excess loss of essential minerals through the skin.
The same concept applies to horses living in hotter climates for the same reasons. But why do horses need to lick salt? Here’s what you need to know:
- Understanding body composition – The horse’s body is 70% water and electrolytes like humans. Maintaining the balance of bodily fluids is key to preserving the health of the organism.
- Salt is vital – Salt is necessary for a variety of processes, such as the secretion of saliva, sweat, urine, and intestinal fluids. It also ensures proper digestion, muscular functioning, and promotes a healthy and balanced nervous system.
- It all begins with the brain – The brain monitors the salt levels in the body. If the horse doesn’t get enough salt through its diet, the brain will sound the alarm and diminish the sensation of thirst. This is to prevent the horse from drinking any more water. A surplus of water will further dilute the already low sodium levels, leading to a variety of health problems and even death. The horse’s brain is the protective system preventing that.
In other words, too little salt and a deficiency of vital minerals will cause dehydration because the horse won’t drink as much water as before. Such behavior can prove fatal fast depending on the horse’s activity levels throughout the day and the climate temperature.
Pros & Cons of Salt Licks
Now that you know what salt does for a horse, are there also side effects to consider? Here are the pros and cons of salt licks that you should keep in mind.
- Better physical health and performance – Salt is a key component for your horse’s health since it promotes improved muscular performance. Salt ensures optimal levels of magnesium, which prevents muscle cramps and ensures better overall physical performance. The same benefits are true for the horse’s skeletal system. In short, ensuring optimal salt intake will keep your horse healthy, strong, and in peak physical condition.
- Boosted immune system – Different types of salts like Himalayan salt contain vital nutrients, minerals, and trace elements aiding in the immune system response. This will keep your horse safe from a variety of conditions and disorders and fight off infections more effectively. This benefit is invaluable for a physically active horse participating in competitions and events.
- Aids in fertility – Essential minerals and trace elements are core components in horse fertility. Salt will also promote better milk production in mares.
- Ensure adequate hydration – Lacking salt will cause horses to lose their thirst sensation, leading to dehydration and kidney failure. Proper salt intake will prevent that.
Salt toxicity is a very rare occurrence with two potential causes. Either the horse will consume a lot more salt than necessary or lacks the water it needs. If your horse licks salt daily, you need to provide it with as much freshwater as it needs. Having plenty of water will eliminate the risk of sodium toxicity since the horse will eliminate any excess salt via urine.
As you can see, there are a handful of benefits to salt licking and almost no downsides. Horses can regulate their bodies just as we can; they will know when they’ve had enough and will stop licking. And don’t worry about monitoring your horse’s daily salt intake.
Symptoms of Salt Deficiency in Horses
Salt deficiency can occur and, when it does, it’s your job to recognize the signs fast. The good thing is that the symptoms will appear slowly and progress as the situation worsens. Some of the most common signs of salt deficiency in horses include:
- Licking your sweat – Sweat contains high amounts of salt. If your horse licks you when you’re sweaty or tends to lick objects that you’ve touched, that may suggest salt deficiency.
- Eating dirt – Dirt is as close as it can get to salt. Horses with salt deficiency will often lick or chew dirt in an attempt to fulfill their sodium requirements.
- Decreased water and food intake – Horses with salt deficiency will drink and eat less with time. In severe cases, the horse may cease drinking and eating completely, at which point the situation is critical.
- Behavioral problems – The horse will have difficulties chewing and coordinating its body. You will see unsteady gait, balance problems, and troubles with basic coordination.
The most noticeable danger of salt deficiency has to be the decrease in water consumption. This can quickly lead to kidney failure and death, especially in horses living in warm climates and engaging in regular physical activities.
Best Salt Licks for Horses
There are plenty of salts to choose from, each with unique benefits, as well as pros and cons. Here are the three options available:
- Plain salt – Salt contains a fair share of minerals naturally, making it great for horses that need to complement their salt intake. The problem is that plain salt lacks a variety of trace minerals that other salt types might bring. It’s still good, provided you don’t have access to anything better.
- Himalayan salt – You can recognize Himalayan salt by its pink color, which indicates higher mineral content. Himalayan salt generally contains all the 80 essential trace minerals that horses need, making it the most popular option. Another aspect worthy of mentioning is the presentation. Himalayan salt comes in hard blocks, which makes it almost impossible for the horse to bite chunks off of it. Its hardened composition also makes it almost impervious to the outside elements. You can hang it outdoors for your horse to lick it whenever it needs to.
- Trace mineral blocks – You can purchase trace mineral blocks that are specifically designed for horses. While they don’t have all the minerals necessary, they still help balancing the horse’s salt needs pretty well.
Mineral Block vs. Salt Lick
If I were to choose, I would rely on salt blocks since they generally contain all the horse’s nutrients. However, it also depends on what the horse prefers. Not all salt and mineral blocks taste the same, and your horse might prefer one over the other. It generally comes to trial and error to see what fits your situation.
Here’s what to consider when deciding what to choose:
- Make sure the salt or mineral block is hard enough to withstand water rain which may dilute softer blocks
- Consider whether your horse likes the taste of the block; if not, try a different one
- See that the block has all the minerals necessary, depending on your horse’s diet and physical requirements
These points should help you choose the perfect mineral or salt block for your horse. If you still have questions, I’m always available to help.
Can a Horse Lick Too Much Salt?
Yes, it can. The horse will generally stop licking when it feels like it has had its full. But some horses will consume more salt than others. Others will even bite into the block if they can and consume entire chunks. This isn’t really an issue, so long as the horse has plenty of water available.
If you’re worried about your horse consuming more salt than it should, you can monitor it throughout the day. Check to see how many times it goes to the salt block. I also advise getting a hard Himalayan block that the horse can’t bite into, eliminating the risk of overconsumption.
You should only worry about salt poisoning if the horse lacks the water necessary. So long as it has plenty of water available, the horse’s kidneys will eliminate the excess salt via urine.
Can a Horse Die from Too Much Salt?
Yes, it can happen, but cases are extremely rare. The condition we’re talking about is called salt toxicosis and generally occurs when the horse overconsumes salt and doesn’t drink enough water. This can lead to stomachaches, diarrhea, and severe dehydration. This condition is deadly in advanced phases.
You can easily prevent salt toxicosis by providing your horse with all the water it can drink.
All horses need some salt supplementation, depending on their diet, workout regime, and climate. Investigate the topic a bit, choose the best salt or mineral block that your horse can tolerate, and provide your horse with plenty of water throughout the day.
I advise verifying your horse’s salt intake at first to make sure everything fits within the acceptable parameters.Horse Health