We’ve all been there – it’s feeding time, your favorite horse is eating up their grain like there’s no tomorrow, and suddenly they freeze. Maybe they start extending their neck or coughing. After a minute, some froth or feed material starts to come out of their nose. They’re choking! What do you do now?

What is choke?

Unlike humans, equine choking occurs when a piece of food gets stuck in the esophagus. While it won’t cause air flow to be cut off, it can be quite distressing. Signs include:

    • Stretching the neck out right after a meal or during the meal
    • Distress such as increased heart or respiratory rate
    • Feedstuff and foam coming out of the nostrils
    • Coughing or gagging
    • Repeated swallowing attempts

So what do you do?

First off, take a deep breath – this is an emergency, but it isn’t dire yet! A large number of chokes will resolve on their own without veterinarian intervention. Sometimes you can feel the food blockage in the neck and help to massage it down. Give the horse at least 10 minutes to use their saliva and muscles to resolve the choke. If after 10 minutes your horse is still having trouble or if you believe this to be an issue of longer duration, call your veterinarian for guidance!

My horse is still choking…now what? 

Having your horse seen by the veterinarian is the next step. Sedation will help your horse calm down and oftentimes, a muscle relaxer is administered for esophageal relaxation. Once sedated, a nasogastric tube will be passed into the esophagus. If a nosebleed starts, don’t fret! This is a common occurrence, and ultimately the nosebleed will stop on its own with a bit of time. More often, feed may begin coming out of the nostrils and the tube. Water will be repeatedly administered through the tube to lavage the feed out until the tube can be passed into the stomach. Depending on the length of the choke episode duration and its severity, your veterinarian may elect to place your horse on an antibiotic for a few weeks due to the risk of aspiration pneumonia.

So how can I prevent this from happening again? 

  1. If your horse hasn’t had a recent dental, plan to schedule one! Poor dentition, especially in senior horses, is a very common cause of choke in combination with pelleted feed consumption. 
  2. Change your feeding pattern. Many horses are fed grain before hay and choose to gorge themselves on it. Try feeding hay prior to giving grain to slow down grain consumption. 
  3. Consider slow feeders and feeding grain on the ground in shallow pan dishes. The slower they eat, the less likely they are to choke. 
  4. Soak it! Whether it’s pellets or cubes, soaking the feed can reduce the risk of choke. Cubed feeds such as beet pulp and alfalfa should be soaked for at least 30 minutes prior to feeding. Some senior horses may need to permanently transition to soaked pelleted feed to soften the grain.
  5. Beware of large treats. Avoid feeding whole carrots, apples, or other treats! Cut treats into smaller bite-sized pieces to avoid blocking the esophagus.