Help for the Choking Horse

Hay pellets and other large pieces of feed can cause choking in horses.
Hay pellets and other large pieces of feed can cause choking in horses.

When an equine acts nervous, coughs, salivates with his head down, backs away from food, arches his neck and swallows repeatedly, or regurgitates with bits of watery food coming out of his nose and mouth, it is possible that an impaction is keeping food from moving through the esophagus.

This alarming condition is called "Choke", but is really an obstruction in the esophagus. The esophagus is the structure that connects the mouth to the stomach. Generally, a choke does not obstruct the wind pipe, but there is a serious danger of the horse aspirating materials into the lungs resulting from the choke

How do I help my choking horse?

First, remove all food and call your veterinarian. If possible, carefully clean out the horse's mouth. If you know it is food and can tell where the impaction is, you may try massaging the left side of the neck over the lump to help move it along.

The horse may be muzzled to prevent any further feed intake.

If there is any chance that the impaction is caused by a hard or sharp object, such as a piece of wood, a large carrot, or a corncob that might cause damage to the esophagus, it is best to wait for the veterinarian. In the meantime, you may walk the horse and allow it to lower its head.

Mineral oil should never be used when a horse is choking because of the risks associated with aspiration. examination should be done to determine if any damage has been done to the esophagus, or if a tumor or stricture is causing a narrowing of the passage.

Once the veterinarian arrives, the horse may be tranquilized and a stomach tube passed gently through the esophagus to dislodge the obstruction. Medication to help the esophageal muscles relax and function more efficiently may be administered.

If the impaction doesn't begin to dissolve and can't be dislodged, the horse may be placed under general anesthesia so that the veterinarian can use a scope to extract the impaction or move it along into the stomach. In a worst case scenario, the veterinarian may need to surgically open the esophagus and remove the impaction.

Once the impaction is removed, an examination should be completed to determine if any damage has been done to the esophagus, or if a tumor or stricture is causing a narrowing of the passage. If damage is apparent, the horse's diet may be restricted for several days, with plenty of clean, fresh water prescribed, followed by feeding of a soft diet.

How do I prevent further episodes of choking?

  1. Correct any dental problems the horse has which prevent thorough chewing of feed. Provide small amounts of feed, especially grains, more frequently and, if necessary, moisten the grain.
  2. If the horse gobbles down food, spread it out or mix it with chopped hay to prevent ingestion of the feed in large clumps.
  3. If feeding pellets, add a few large stones to the feed box so the horse has to search for smaller bites of feed. When feeding carrots, apples, or similar foods, make sure they are in smaller pieces that won't cause the horse to choke.
  4. Don't leave foreign objects that the horse might want to swallow around the barn or stable. Prevent the horse from chewing wood, pieces of tack, or other barn or stall trappings.

Consider this

Being observant for signs of choking and taking steps to make sure that your horse is not ingesting either feed or objects that might lead to choking, will improve the horse's safety and your peace of mind.

Dig deeperTM

Learn more by reading the reference article about equine choke.

About the Author

Flossie Sellers

Author picture

As an animal lover since childhood, Flossie was delighted when Mark, the CEO and developer of EquiMed asked her to join his team of contributors.

She enrolled in My Horse University at Michigan State and completed a number of courses in everything related to horse health, nutrition, diseases and conditions, medications, hoof and dental care, barn safety, and first aid.

Staying up-to-date on the latest developments in horse care and equine health is now a habit, and she enjoys sharing a wealth of information with horse owners everywhere.