Hydration and the Equestrian Athlete

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Let’s talk H2O! 

Talking with my good friend, Laura Hall RD, who is a registered dietitian, gave me the gut check I needed. Let me explain. Her and I were speaking about the hydration of animals, focusing mostly on dogs and horses.  I explained that we all in the equine world monitor how much our horses drink and even give them electrolytes.  Laura, being the great friend that she is and always looking out for me, says “So why don’t you monitor how much water you drink?” 

Hello gut check!  

She continued by saying, “Faith your horse is your teammate. If you don’t hydrate, how can you help your teammate?” 

I do hate when she is right, but she is right a lot!

Laura went on to add, “Adequate hydration is crucial, not only for athletes, but for humans in general. America as a whole is dehydrated, and has a lot of negative health effects as a result of it. Maintaining adequate hydration is important for athletic performance as well as protecting overall health and wellness of the body.  

“The athlete performs exercise in a variety of different conditions (weather, temperature, humidity, sun, wind, etc.) These conditions lead to differing levels of sweat loss in the athlete. Sweat carries both water and electrolytes so during physical activity, when the athlete sweats, hydration and electrolyte levels are being thrown off-balance.  Even slight dehydration leads to water and electrolyte losses, causing negative effects in energy levels, reaction times, and athletic performance. It is important that the concept of hydration and electrolyte replacement is understood for the athlete in order to improve performance by maintaining proper functions of the body’s metabolic processes.” 

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The Importance of Water

The human body is made up of 45-75% water, and it is the most biologically active molecule in the body. Water plays a role in every physiological reaction in the body from helping maintain energy levels to preventing hunger. Water consumption can be tracked through the water content in foods and fluids. As Laura would say, that does not mean you drink coffee all day!  

Fluid Balance and Hydration Status

The goal of hydration for the athlete is to drink enough fluids throughout the day to prevent dehydration, but not drink too much that hyponatremia occurs.

  • Dehydration 
    • Water is consistently lost from the body through the skin, urine, feces and sweat
    • Slight dehydration = 1% loss of body weight
    • Greater dehydration = >2% loss of body weight
  • Dehydration negatively affects:
    • Energy and exertion levels during exercise and athletic performance 
    • The body’s ability to cool down in hot environments, leading to heat illnesses

On the opposite end of the spectrum, hyponatremia occurs when too much water is drunk over a long period of time, resulting in watering down of electrolyte concentrations (sodium, potassium, chloride) that leads to low electrolyte levels.

Ways to Monitor Your Hydration

  • Urine color
    • Assess the color of the urine during the first visit of the day to the bathroom
    • Please refer to the Urine Color Chart Below
    • Urine color that matches 1-3 means proper hydration
    • Urine color that matches 4-8 means improper hydration and more water should be drunk

Note: If the athlete consumes vitamin supplements, the urine will produce a darker color or a fluorescent yellow color which is normal

Recommendations Before Exercise

The goal of hydrating prior to exercise is to prevent excessive dehydration and changes in electrolyte balance that could have a detrimental effect on performance and health.

Fluid recommendations:

  • 4 hours before exercise:
    • Consume 5-7 mL of fluids through food and fluids per kilogram of bodyweight (lbs / 2.2 = kg)
  • 2 hours before exercise:
    • Consume additional 3-5 mL/kg body weight
  • Example: 170lb athlete wants to hydrate before an athletic event
  • *To convert body weight in pounds (lb) to kilograms (kg), divide body weight (lb) by 2.2*
    • 170 lb / 2.2 kg = 77 kg
    • 4 hours before exercise, athlete should be consuming 5-7 mL water per kg body weight
      • 77 kg x 5-7 mL water = 385-539 mL water
        • 1 mL = 0.00422 cup
      • 385 mL * 0.00422 cup/1 mL = 1.62 cups
      • 539 mL * 0.00422 cup/1 mL = 2.27 cups
      • Athlete should consume 1.6-2.2 cups of water (or 1.5-2 cups) 4 hours prior to exercise
    • 2 hours before exercise, athlete should be consuming additional 3-5 mL/kg body weight
      • 77 kg x 3-5 mL water = 231 – 385 mL water
        • 1 mL = 0.00422 cup
      • 231 mL * 0.00422 cup/1 mL = .97 or 1 cup
      • 385 mL * 0.00422 cup/1 mL = 1.62 cups
      • Athlete should consume additional 1-1.6 cups of water (or 1- 1.5 cups) 2 hours prior to exercise
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Fluid Recommendations During Exercise

The goal of hydrating during exercise is to replace fluids and electrolytes lost through sweat during the activity.

  • Factors that affect sweating rate:
    • Exercise intensity
    • Exercise duration
    • Gender
    • Fitness level
    • Genetics
    • Athlete’s ability to exercise in hot conditions
    • Clothing and equipment worn during exercise
  • Benefits of being hydrated during exercise:
    • Heart rate is lower
    • Cardiac output is higher
    • Blood flow to skin is higher
    • Core temperature of body is lower
    • Perceived exertion during exercise is lower
    • Athletic performance is improved

Fluid Recommendations After Exercise

The goal after exercise is to replace fluid and electrolytes lost through exercise.

  • Electrolyte balance can be balanced by consuming foods that contain sodium 
    • Pretzels, soup, pickles, broth

If I’m being honest, water is not my favorite thing to drink, but I know how essential it is. Pinterest has a ton of ideas on how to flavor your water, so have a little fun and drink up. It’s just as important for you as it is for your horse! 


  • Laura Hall R.D
  • NASM Personal Training Sixth Edition pg 475,490-491,  Jones & Barleet Learning, 2018 

Faith McKay-Alicea former Director of Healthcare Service at The MDA. Now a mom, small business owner of Title Boxing Club in Trexlertown, PA, an Amateur and USEF R Steward, Schooling Supervisor And Measurement Field Examiner. Never stop learning!