The Online Horse Magazine for Equestrians of all Ages



​Some feeds, like hay pellets, expand when wet. This can create a choking hazard for horses

Horse owners can reduce the likelihood of choke by always providing an adequate supply of palatable water, particularly when offering dry feeds such as hay. To slow down the consumption of pelleted feeds and grain concentrates, fist-sized rocks can be placed in the feed tubs of horses that habitually bolt their feed. Smaller, more frequent meals may also help some horses eat slower. Apples, carrots and other treats can be broken or cut into smaller, bite-sized pieces for horses that like to swallow these snacks whole..

The horse's social status can also have a bearing on the speed at which it eats. Horses at the lower end of the social hierarchy feel more threatened when fed in a group setting. The fear of being driven away from food can lead to frenzied eating behavior. Stalling or separating horses at feeding time allows each animal to eat his portion of feed at his own pace.

Regular dental care throughout the horse's life prevents dental issues that can alter the horse's ability to chew properly. Generally, yearly dental examines and teeth floating are recommended for most horses. However, older horses often benefit from more frequent attention to their teeth. To prevent choke, avoid feeding sedated horses until the full effect of the sedatives have subsided. 

Social pressure from higher ranking horses can make a lower ranking horse eat faster. Feeding horses in stalls can eliminate this issue.

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Poorly chewed food is one cause of equine choke. Horses that eat too fast or bolt their food put themselves at greater risk for esophageal obstructions. Older horses, particularly those with dental problems, can also choke due to their inability to properly chew their food. Foals and smaller equines, such as miniature horses, are more prone to choke as their esophagus is narrower than that of larger equines.

Another contributing factor for choke is the type of feed. While almost any feed that is improperly chewed can lodge in the esophagus, the physical properties of some feeds lead to a greater number of choke cases. Pelleted feed can be one of the most problematic due to its ability to absorb moisture and expand in volume. Other types of moisture-absorbing feeds that can be easily swallowed without chewing include beet pulp and hay cubes. 


​Whole apples and carrots can present a choking hazard for some horses. Cutting these tasty treats into bite-size pieces may be necessary for horses that tend to swallow them whole.


Less common causes of choke include eating non-food items, such as pine shavings. Injury or trauma to the esophagus as well as tumors, strictures and cysts can restrict the passage of food down the esophagus and lead to choke. In addition, a reduction in water consumption, particularly during the winter, is another element that can precipitate choke.


Equine Esophageal Obstruction

If you're like many equestrians, you probably take a quick peek at your horse over the stall door when you enter the stable. Maybe you want to see if your horse is covered in mud and manure so you know whether to grab the whole arsenal of brushes or if a quick once-over is is enough. Maybe you peek over the stall to reassure yourself that it's not just a dream - you do own one of most beautiful creatures on earth. But whatever the reason, chances are you're not expecting to see green, frothy slime running out of your horse's nose.

Discovering a horse with choke can be quite disturbing, especially if you're unfamiliar with this common equine health issue. As compared to humans, choke in horses is not a life threatening emergency, but it is a serious condition that requires veterinary care. Equine choke, which is also called esophageal obstruction, is caused by food or a foreign object lodging in the esophagus. A horse experiencing choke can breathe, but is unable to swallow.

In some regards, equine anatomy is partially to blame for this particular health problem. The esophagus, a muscular tube that allows food to move from the pharynx at the back of the throat to the stomach, is approximately four to five feet long in the adult horse. As this tube passes into the chest cavity, it narrows slightly - making this an ideal area for food to lodge. Add a horse who likes to bolt his feed and we have the perfect recipe for choke.  

Avoid leaving non-edible items within the horse's reach. Stalled horses may tear up or chew items due to boredom. Treat bags or baling twine that retain the smell of food can be too tempting to resist. Bedding material that is highly palatable should be avoided. Horses that have previously choked as a result of consuming their bedding may need to wear a grazing muzzle when stalled.

Finally, proceed slowly when first introducing pelleted concentrates, hay cubes or beet pulp into the daily ration. Since these feeds expand when they come into contact with saliva, horses unaccustomed to these types of feed need time to acclimate and adjust their eating patterns. Soaking these types of feed prior to feeding also helps reduce the risk for choke. Although not every case of choke can be prevented, these few steps can reduce the potential!

The information contained within this article does not constitute medical advice. Consult your veterinarian if you suspect your horse is choking.

All Choked Up!

Expulsion of green and frothy discharge from the nostrils is a classic symptom of choke. This discharge is caused by the buildup of saliva in the esophagus and it often contains bits of feed. A choking horse may also extend its neck or attempt to drink in an effort to dislodge the bolus. The latter can lead to drooling, coughing or gagging. Large obstructions can sometimes be seen or palpated on the left side of the neck. Lastly, horses that are choking usually appear anxious.

If you discover your horse choking, the first step is remain calm so as to not further upset the horse. Immediately remove any food within the horse's reach to prevent the horse from consuming it and making the problem worse. Bedding materials may also need to be removed. Many cases of choke resolve spontaneously due to the movement and efforts of the horse. However, choke can lead to dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, trauma to the esophagus and aspiration pneumonia. It's wise to call your horse's veterinarian for advice.

If the choke has not resolved itself by the time the veterinarian has arrived, he will most likely begin treatment with a sedative. This encourages the horse to relax and lower its head. The sedative will also decrease esophageal spasms. The veterinarian will then pass a nasogastric tube through the horse's nostril and down into the esophagus. This helps determine how far down the esophagus the obstruction is located. The veterinarian will then repeatedly fill and empty the tube with warm water to soften and flush away the obstruction. If this doesn't resolve the issue, surgery may become necessary.

The prognosis for a complete recovery from a single episode of choke is fairly good. However, repeated bouts may require endoscopic examination to detect the cause. Physical trauma from an obstruction can lead to ulceration of the lining of the esophagus. As this heals, scar tissue can form and cause a stricture or narrowing of the esophagus. This increases the odds of choke recurring.

Secondary complications are also common with choke so follow up care is essential. In many cases, the veterinarian will prescribe antibiotics to counter aspiration pneumonia. This can develop from the inhalation of saliva and food into the lungs when the horse is choking. Intravenous fluids may be administered to hydrate the horse and restore pH balance. Pain medication will help relieve the inflammation in the esophagus due to both the obstruction and the nasogastric tube.

The veterinarian will usually instruct the owner to withhold feed for a period of time. It is essential to follow this recommendation in order to give the horse's esophagus the necessary time to heal. If dental problems were the likely cause of choke, an appointment with an equine dentist should be scheduled. A change in the type of feed or the recommendation to soak pelleted feed may be beneficial in reducing the chance of recurrence.