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Understanding Choke

What To Do If Your Horse Has Choke

About the Author

Nicola Kinnard-Comedie owns and runs NKC Equestrian Training, a training company providing Online and One day Horse First Aid Courses across the UK, together with qualified vets. Nicola is a qualified riding instructor and has extensive experience in the equestrian industry. NKC Equestrian Training courses are designed for horse owners to update their knowledge on preventative health care, wounds, colic and infectious diseases. The courses are based on the latest veterinary recommendations and provide training that owners can trust.

Choke is termed by vets as a minor veterinary emergency, but if your horse has ever had ‘choke’ you might have found it quite an alarming experience. In this article, we will look at what choke is, how to prevent this from occurring and what to do if your horse suffers from choke. 

Choke is correctly termed ‘oesophagal obstruction’, and most commonly this is caused by dry feed, or a treat such as a carrot, becoming lodged in the oesophagus. Unlike when a human chokes, the horse can still breathe as it is the oesophagus that is blocked, not the trachea, so breathing is not restricted. 

In an effort to clear the blockage the horse will cough and splutter, and saliva and food materials will pass out of the nostrils. This can be rather distressing for both horse and owner. It is important to keep your horse calm and try to encourage the horse to lower its head to help clear the blockage. Choke generally resolves quite quickly on its own, but it is advisable to call your vet as some cases may require clearing which only your vet can perform.

What causes choke?

Choke is generally caused by feed or treats. Sometimes this is due to a feed, such as sugar beet, not being soaked sufficiently, or dry chaff not being sufficiently watered down. If sugar beet, or any other feed designed to be soaked, is inadvertently fed dry this can expand in the oesophagus and cause an impaction. Carrots are also a common culprit in cases of choke, especially if they are not sliced lengthwise. A circular disc of carrot is just the ideal size and shape to block the oesophagus

Choke can be caused by the horse eating too quickly. Some horses are greedy and will come into the stable and virtually ‘inhale’ hay or feed, without chewing sufficiently, and a case of choke can occur as a result. Other horses might bolt their feed due to competition if they are fed in a group out in a field

Poor dentition can also contribute towards the occurrence of choke, as feed is not being chewed sufficiently before being swallowed

Inadequate water intake can also lead to choke 

There is a risk of choke occurring after a horse has been sedated if they are allowed access to hay before the sedative has fully worn off 

What to do if your horse has choke

1. Keep calm - It is easy to panic when your horse appears distressed with food and saliva pouring out of their nostrils. Don’t forget choke is classed by vets as a minor emergency, and that your horse can still breathe

2. Call your vet - It might be necessary for your vet to visit if the choke does not resolve on its own

3. Remove all food and water from the stable - It is unlikely that your horse will try and eat but you don’t want to add to the impaction any further

4. Gentle walking - To help relax horse (and owner!) you can gently walk the horse and encourage their head down which will aid clearing the blockage

It might be necessary for your vet to sedate the horse, give a muscle relaxant, and pain killers may also be necessary. In some cases, a nasogastric tube may be passed to clear the choke and antibiotics may be given as well. There is a risk of secondary pneumonia occurring after a case of choke, so it is sensible to consult with your vet in all cases.

5 Ways to Prevent Choke

-   Make sure all feed is stored in a secure container, especially sugar beet pulp, and ensure these are well labelled so they are not mistaken for nuts and fed dry in error
-   If your horse needs to be sedated for clipping or dental work make sure you remove all hay from the stable so that your horse can’t ‘snack’ before the sedation has fully worn off
-   If your horse is prone to eating quickly because they are lower down the pecking order in a herd then try feeding your horse in a separate area to reduce competition
-   A  greedy horse can be slowed down by adding a brick to their feed bucket so they have to eat around it. Feeding horses ‘little and often’ is the best for horses mental and physical well being, and can help prevent them from eating too quickly as well
-   Ensure carrots are sliced lengthways and be careful with treats if your horse eats quickly

Choke can often be prevented but it is a ‘horsey emergency’ that owners need to be aware of. Calling your vet and remaining calm is important, and of course, don’t forget that your horse can still breathe. You can learn more about choke and other horsey emergencies such as nosebleeds, colic and cast on our next Live Horse First Aid Course. This is six hours of vet led training, delivered online via Zoom in three sessions. 

If you've found this article interesting, you can read more of NKC's helpful advice here.

Did you know we offer veterinary fee cover up to £7,500 for colic surgery? KBIS are one of the largest independent horse insurance providers, offering all types of insurance for the equestrian. During the coronavirus pandemic, our staff are working from home to keep them safe. Our phone lines are still open, please call 0345 230 2323 to speak to a member of the team to discuss your insurance needs. Our products include horsebox and trailer insurance, breakdown insurance, personal accident cover, liability insurance and horse insurance including a wide variety of veterinary fee options. You can get a horse insurance quote online or call 0345 230 2323. 

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Understanding Choke: What to do if your horse has choke.