Benefits of Baking Soda for Horses – Sodium Bicarbonate
Updated April 28, 2023
There is a lot of (mis)information out there about our friend and household staple baking soda. So, let’s put some of the myths to rest so we can provide safe and effective support to our horses where they need it most.
Baking Soda in the Feed Room
Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, affectionately known in some circles just as “bicarb.” It’s commonly used around the house to bake cookies, freshen laundry, whiten teeth, and perform a host of other tasks. In the stable, it has also been used for years for some honest purposes and some not-so-honest purposes.
For example, some people feed 1-2 tablespoons of it to “sweeten” the stomach at mealtime, using bicarb’s ability to neutralize acid in an attempt to help them avoid gastric distress. It might raise stomach pH and make the horse temporarily more comfortable, but the effect is short-lived and there is often a rebound effect where pH goes even lower. So, there is still the need for longer-acting medications, like omeprazole to treat and prevent gastric ulcers.
Decades ago, baking soda was given to horses prone to tying up (recurrent exertional rhabdomyolysis [RER]) thinking it would buffer the lactic acid in the muscle. However, this has not been proven and experts in neuromuscular diseases do not see a rational basis for feeding bicarb to prevent tying up.
Unfortunately, some trainers have given large doses of bicarb to standardbred racehorses just prior to a race in an effort to enhance performance by “pre-loading” the animal with an alkalinizing agent to buffer the lactic acid that will be produced during racing.
It does lower blood pH, but it also puts the horse in harm’s way and is now prohibited on race day at all U.S. racing jurisdictions. Blood tests are performed within one hour of the finish of a race to make sure the horse’s total carbon dioxide (tCO2) levels are not too high, indicating the practice of “milkshaking.”
Achieving Benefits Without the Baking Soda
Researchers have experimented with a wide variety of forage, grains, and supplements, trying to cause a shift in the horse’s tCO2 levels, but so far, they have been unsuccessful. The horse’s body is designed to maintain blood pH in a certain range.
Therefore, it is difficult, if not impossible, to feed a horse enough bicarb to affect lactic acid levels in muscles, or for that matter, the pH in the hindgut. Bicarb is not palatable, so horses do not want to consume lots of it.
Protecting the Equine Microbiome
The horse’s hindgut can tolerate variations in pH (going as low as 6.0) without serious damage to the tissues. However, changes in pH for some horses with sensitive stomachs or a more fragile microbiome can compromise their ability to ferment fiber. This results in signs like bloating, free fecal water or diarrhea. Situations that may cause a temporary imbalance in pH include feeding too much grain, too much sugar, or sugar-rich grass pasture.
Fortunately for horses at risk of hindgut acidosis, companies have developed protected sodium bicarbonate supplements. These supplements are able to make it past the acidic environment of the stomach and small intestine to the large intestine. There, it delivers bicarb to the hindgut and neutralizes excess acid without creating a dangerous rise in tCO2 levels
. Another option your veterinarian may suggest is to use plain bicarbonate via a stomach tube to adjust the stomach’s pH level
Key Takeaway on Baking Soda for Horses
If you’re considering feeding baking soda to your horse for ulcers or another reason, first speak with your veterinarian about safely formulated supplements and/or medications that have sound science behind them to support your horse. Every horse has their own unique situation as some owners have reported baking soda helping with loose stool, while others have said it caused diarrhea in their horse. Working with your veterinarian who understands your horse’s specific issues is the best route.
1. Pagan, J. D., Lawrence, T. S., & Lawrence, L. (2007). Feeding protected sodium bicarbonate attenuates hindgut acidosis in horses fed a high-grain ration. Proceedings of the 53rd Annual Convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, Orlando, Florida, USA, 1-5 December, 2007., 530–533.
2. Taylor, E. A., Beard, W. L., Douthit, T., & Pohlman, L. (2013). Effect of orally administered sodium bicarbonate on caecal ph. Equine Veterinary Journal, 46(2), 223–226.
Originally published July 16, 2013.