Avoiding Choke in Horses
Anyone who has had a horse choke can tell you, it is not a pleasant experience. Horses “choke” when a mass of partially chewed feed becomes lodged in their esophagus. In an effort to dislodge the offending mass, the horse coughs repeatedly and sometimes violently. He stretches out his neck and struggles to swallow. Green watery snot and food particles spew out of his nostrils because it has nowhere else to go.
Some choking horses become so stressed they colic. An emergency call to a vet is made and it seems like forever before help arrives! It is a scary situation for both horse and owner, but remember: a choking horse is not like a choking human; the horse can still breathe. However, if the problem is left untreated for too long, horses may aspirate fluid or particles into their lungs, causing pneumonia.
So what causes this distressful event to occur in the first place? You will hear all kinds of myths that pellets, cubes or beet pulp cause choking, but in reality a horse can choke on any type of food under the right conditions. Horses have been known to choke on hay, apples and even grass!
Causes and solutions
Eating too fast
Some horses are just pigs and can’t wait to inhale their meals. Others eat fast because they feel threatened by other horses in the vicinity and they want to be sure they get their fair share before the bully comes along and chases them away. A hungry horse whose feeding schedule has been disrupted may bolt their feed. Regardless of the reason, when horses eat too fast they don’t chew their food completely. This increases the risk of an esophageal blockage occurring.
Slow down the rate of intake. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But it isn’t always so easy. First, you need to determine why your horse is eating fast. If he is worried about a bully, feed him by himself or out of sight of the other horses. If he is stalled when fed, move him away from the bully horse or put up a barrier so he can’t see the bully. If your horse just likes to bolt his feed, toss some large smooth rocks in the feed tub or feed smaller meals more often. There are several types of buckets and hay nets on the market today that force horses to consume small amounts at a time, thus slowing the rate in which they eat. Feeding your horse on a regular schedule and turning him out as much as possible are other strategies that help keep your horse from feeling overly hungry and bolting down a meal.
Not producing enough saliva
Horses that are not chewing properly due to dental or other jaw-related problems may not produce enough saliva to adequately wet their food before swallowing it. Dehydration due to heat, heavy exercise, transportation, lactation or low water intake can lead to inadequate saliva production, coupled with a dry throat. The lack of lubrication causes the feed to become lodged in the esophagus.
Whenever possible, address issues that negatively affect your horse’s ability to chew. Have you horse’s teeth checked annually and rectify conditions that cause pain when chewing. The more comfortable a horse is, the longer he will chew and the more saliva will be produced to lubricate the food’s passage down the long esophagus. Adding water to a meal is a good way to increase moisture content. You can moisten concentrates (grains or pellets) by feeding them as a sloppy mash. Fiber sources like hay or beet pulp can be soaked prior to feeding. Be sure your horse has access to plenty of clean water before, during, and after his meal. If your horse has just finished a tough day of competition or a long trailer ride, or if she hasn’t been drinking enough, be sure she is properly hydrated before offering food. Again, feeding small amounts of moistened food will reduce the risk of choke occurring.
Illness or injury
Ill or exhausted horses may lack the ability to chew properly. In rare cases, a partial obstruction of the esophagus due to an old injury or tumor can cause a horse to choke.
In these cases it is best to work with your veterinarian to determine the best course of action. If feed is offered it should be moistened, given frequently, and in very small amounts.
Good management practices, such as annual dental exams and proper feeding strategies, will go a long way toward reducing the risk of your horse suffering from a bout of choke. Should you be unfortunate enough to run into the problem, do not panic; horses very rarely die from choke. Call your vet and keep yourself and your horse calm. Help is on the way.