Choking, in horses, happens when their esophagus becomes blocked — usually from bolting their food or from eating very dry food without having access to water. Unlike when a human chokes, a horse can still breathe, but choking can be quite serious. Horses that choke can damage their esophagus and, if the backed up food, saliva or water gets into their longs, they can develop pneumonia.
While I have never seen a horse experience an episode of choke, one of the horses at our barn had a serious incident of choke this past fall. She’s a horse who loves her food and is always in a hurry to eat as much as she can. She got into the grain room and then also got into a tub of hay stretcher pellets. These pellets lodged in her through and got stuck.
What are the signs?
Horses that choke present in different ways.
- They may get agitated.
- They may extend their necks.
- They may appear to be gagging (horses are unable to throw up).
- Discharge will likely come out of their nose.
- Sometimes you can feel the mass in their neck.
It’s pretty horrifying. And it makes you feel quite helpless.
What you should do when your horse chokes.
The most important thing to do is call the vet. Sometimes choke can clear on its own, in few minutes, and sometimes it will be necessary for the vet to come and help the choke clear. Choke is easier and more successfully treated when it first occurs.
Once the vet is on the way, you should try to keep your horse quiet and calm. Don’t let it eat or drink and avoid exercise.
Sometimes you can help clear the blockage by massaging the neck gently.
Sometimes your vet might suggest dosing with Acepromazine. In some cases it can cause the esophagus to relax enough that the horse can swallow the mass. If that doesn’t work, the vet may try gently dislodging the mass with a tube.
If that doesn’t work, your vet may sedate with Xyline. Once your horse’s head is lowered (as the result of the sedation) they can use a warm water lavage to wash down the impacted feed.
After the impact is cleared, your vet may prescribe antibiotics in case any fluids have been aspirated.
Preventing future episodes of choke
Once a horse has experienced an episode of choke they are more likely to choke again because there may damage to their esophagus. To keep your horse safe from a another episode of choke there are some steps you can take:
- Add large rocks to your horse’s grain to slow down their eating
- Soak grain or any pelleted feeds before feeding
- Don’t feed grass clippings
- Avoid feeding dry beet pulp, especially to horses that bolt their feed.
- Avoid feeding large chunks of apples or carrots.
As for Curly, our resident food bolter? She has made a full recovery without any serious complications. She gets only soaked feed and all pelleted feed is kept under double lock and key.
Certainly Curly’s experience with choke has changed my opinion about it. I’ve never had a horse that bolts their feed. Mine have all taken their time eating. But I no longer discount the risk of choke. I continue to soak Freedom’s feed and it’s something I plan to continue. It seems a very simple thing to do which can help prevent great distress to my horse.
Has your horse ever choked? What did you do?