Learning to recognize the symptoms and identify the causes of choke in horses,will help you respond appropriately to get your horse comfortable and out of trouble. Choke is when pieces of food get lodged in the horse's esophagus. For a horse, choking is not as much of an emergency as it is for a human, since the windpipe is not blocked and the horse can still breath, however it is very uncomfortable for the horse.
There are a few different causes of choke. If a horse eats too fast and doesn’t produce enough saliva, hay and grain can get balled-up and stuck on the way down to the stomach. If a horse’s teeth are not properly maintained, it may inhibit his ability to properly chew his food, leaving larger chunks of food to try and swallow. Once a horse has choked the chance of a recurrence in the next day or two is more likely than not. The muscle layers in and around the esophagus cannot function properly due to the inflammation caused by the trauma of the choke.
Choke is often mistaken by horse owners for colic, the horse will exhibit several of the same symptoms. He will be visibly uncomfortable; maybe laying down and rolling or pawing at the ground. He will also probably be coughing. These are all his efforts of trying to dislodge the choke. What is different about choke is that the horse will have food particles and mucus coming out of his nose because it cannot get past the blockage in the esophagus. Sometimes you can see the blockage near the throat latch or along the horse’s neck.
If you suspect your horse maybe choking, remove all of his food and water, you do not want him to add to the blockage. The more food he gets stuck behind the blockage the more likely he is to aspirate some food or water into his lungs which would highly increase the chance of an infection like pneumonia. Call your veterinarian as soon as you notice the signs. The quicker the choke is cleared the less likely the horse is to have scar tissue that will make him more likely to choke again.
When the vet arrives they will sedate the horse to relax the muscles around the esophagus. They will probably pass a tube through one of the horse’s nostrils and into his esophagus. Water will be pumped through the tube in effort to break up and soften the blockage. This could take a few buckets of water. The vet can siphon some of the blockage back out through the tube. Once the muscles of the esophagus have relaxed and the blockage has been reduced in size and lubricated enough, the vet will be able to gently push it right down into the horse’s stomach, relieving the choke.
From this point it is important to manage the horse’s pain with a non-steroidal anti inflammatory drug depending on how much damage was caused by the choke. It is important to keep a close watch on the horse for the next few days and feed him small, wet meals that will go down easily while his esophagus heals.
There are a few things that you can do to prevent choke if it is something that your horse seems prone to. Pelleted feeds, beet pulp, and alfalfa cubes are all feed products that MUST be soaked before they are fed. This is because they expand when they get wet and they can cause choke if they are fed dry. If your horse eats too fast, add large rocks or billiard balls to his grain bucket in order to make him work a little harder and take a little more time to eat his grain. Regular dental check ups are important. An annual floating by your veterinarian will keep your horse’s mouth maintained. Your vet can tell you whether or not your horse should be looked at more frequently, in the case of aged equines or if he has a specific abnormality.