Adding a small amount of sodium bicarbonate to a horse’s drinking water and/or feed has produced dramatic changes in some horses. After years of moving with a short stride and consequent toe-strike, the warmblood horse, Hopper, began moving with a long stride and heel-strike after only three days of sodium bicarbonate supplementation, commencing in March 2010, and has been able to maintain that normal, free movement. Another surprising result was that Hopper stopped cribbing and windsucking, a stereotypy that had been present for years. Go to the HOPPER main page to read his lifestory in full.
The mechanism by which sodium bicarbonate achieved that improvement is unknown. However, some clues may be found when considering the level of acidity or alkalinity in the horse’s drinking water. The issue of body pH balance is highly complex and appears to be not fully understood even by experts working in that area. There is, however, agreement that extremes of both acidity and alkalinity are harmful.
An indepth tutorial of acid/base physiology can be found at:
Equine blood has very delicate pH parameters with baseline pH ranging from 7.42 to 7.45; the more this level drops towards 7.42 the more acid the blood has become. Some professionals consider lowered alkali reserves as the main cause of poor performance in equine athletes.
To ensure that the acidic components of stomach contents do not pass into the bloodstream, any food or fluids that are consumed by the horse must be neutralized by the body’s own buffer systems which secrete bicarbonate, or be eliminated through feces and urine. Like all living creatures, individual horses may vary in their ability to neutralize acids. Factors that can adversely affect body alkali reserves include feeding excess proteins and starches, and the body’s own bicarbonate levels becoming depleted.? Nervous, anxious horses are more prone to experience lowered alkali reserves due to the effect of stress on the digestive process.
Most town water supplies are adjusted so that pH is close to neutral (pH 7.0). Water pumped from underground reservoirs often contain alkaline minerals from the rock substrate in which they have formed. Similarly, running rivers and streams contain minerals from the ground over which they flow; water that naturally collects in ponds and lakes is also likely to contain minerals from soils and vegetation which results in freshwater lakes commonly being slightly basic.
See this reference for example:
Prior to domestication, equines would have had to drink water from wherever it could be found; pools or lakes formed by rainwater that had first travelled over hillsides and vegetation, or running streams. It is likely that most sources of drinking water would have been close to neutral or slightly alkaline. It appears that some horses may not be able to efficiently neutralize the carbonic acid in rainwater on a longterm basis, perhaps because there would have been little need to develop that ability if, throughout their environmental history, they were drinking water that was predominantly slightly alkaline from running streams, ponds or lakes. Most horses appear to prefer drinking water that is not acidic.
Urine pH is one way that may assist with assessing the body’s ability to process ingested acids. The three horses on the chart below all ate the same diet, drank the same pH 6.0 rainwater, and had the same living conditions, yet there was a significant difference in their urine pH. Urine pH in the range between 7.5 to 8.5 is considered to be normal for horses (Manual of equine practice, R. J. Rose, D. R. Hodgson P. 404).
When sodium bicarbonate was added to their communal drinking water, the resulting difference in urine pH was quite surprising. Changes in urine pH occurred slowly over a two-week period.
Gante, with a urine pH of 6.0, had excellent feet but suffered from a persistent fungal skin infection, and an anxious temperament.
Rory, with a urine pH of 6.0 had Cushings and longterm hoof problems which are documented on the RORY main page.
Sol, with a urine pH of 8.5 had no obvious health issues with good, strong feet, no skin problems and no behavioural problems.
Gante's urine pH slowly increased to 7.0 while drinking rainwater with added sodium bicarbonate, and then increased again to 7.5 a couple of weeks after adding 30g of sodium bicarb to his feed. His fungal skin infection cleared immediately and has not returned although he remains mildly allergic to midge bites.
Rory's urine pH slowly increased to 8.5 with no positive or negative changes to his already-resolved hoof issues.
Sol's urine pH did not change, remaining at 8.5, and he continued to be problem-free
More research is needed on this subject, but it appears some horses who are drinking acidic rainwater may benefit from the addition of a small amount of sodium bicarbonate to raise the water pH to around neutral.
Horses drinking water that is already alkaline may not benefit from the addition of sodium bicarbonate, and it may even be harmful as excess alkalinity has been associated with enterolith formation.
An interesting overview of some of the benefits of sodium bicarbonate can be found at this link:
Bicarbonate has beneficial effects on health (News vol 3, no 1, May 2001)
Drinking water pH and urine pH can easily be tested with a pH meter, or with litmus paper dipsticks. A wide variation of readings is possible, depending on the brand of paper used.
For the sake of consistency, the paper sticks bearing two areas of reagent are recommended.
For accuracy, unit graduations of 0.25 are also preferable.
The ‘pHion’ brand has been reliable and is readily available online
WHERE TO BUY SODIUM BICARBONATE
Go to the SUPPLIERS page for more information on where to buy sodium bicarbonate in your country,