It is a very emotional and frightening experience when your horse chokes. I wanted to share some of my thoughts on this issue. I have been an equine veterinarian for over 25 years, and throughout that time, I have treated many choke cases in horses (and sometimes in other species). Choke is when some object, most commonly feed, gets lodged in the horse’s esophagus.

SYMPTOMS: The horse will exhibit signs such as stuff (usually green – depending upon the cause) running out of one or both nostrils, extending their neck, coughing, and trying to swallow to dislodge the material. They can still breath through their nostrils.

TREATMENT: In some cases they will resolve the choke on their own, and if not, your veterinarian will treat your horse with medication to relax the smooth muscle of the esophagus and/or a tranquilizer. Passage of a stomach tube will usually clear the obstruction. Follow up care can include soaked food, antibiotics if your veterinarian is worried about an aspiration pneumonia, and pain relievers. I have treated horses that have choked from pellets, grain, hay, grass, apples, carrots, foreign objects, etc… Some causes can be from horses gulping their food, which is usually due to being worried about competition, being low on the pecking order, a change in feeding times or having dental issues where they can’t chew their food as well. Interestingly, I have over the years, seen more chokes during weather changes especially in the late summer and fall. Research has shown that the horses cortisol levels increase during this time. Higher cortisol encourages the horses body to put on fat to get ready for winter. It also increases their appetite which might affect their feeding behavior.

PREVENTION: 1) Soaking pelleted food until it has a mush like consistency. This also increases water consumption. 2) Feeding hay before grain so that your horse isn’t as hungry. 3) Spreading the pellets over a larger surface area, so they can’t get large mouthfuls or placing large rocks (bigger than your fist), so that the horse has to move the rocks around to get to the grain. 4) Separating horses while they are eating grain so that they aren’t worried that they are not going to get their share. 5) Making sure your horse’s teeth have been examined by your veterinarian and any dental issues addressed. 

Trish Kentner, DVM Countryside Equine Clinic, PC