How to Recognise and Deal with Choke in Horses

How to Recognise and Deal with Choke in Horses

There's no doubt that horses enjoy their food and if they show no interest in their feed bowls or hay nets, the chances are there is something very wrong with them. When they are out to grass horses keep their heads down most of time constantly grazing with intermittent periods of sleeping whether standing up or lying down. Grass offers horses loads of valuable fibre but there's not a lot of nourishment in grass when you calculate it per mouthful, which is why horses need to eat so much of it!

Horses are also what is known as “flight” animals which means they are always on the look out for predators. In the wild my nature, they tend to eat quite fast and this is one trait a horse has kept as a domestic animal. However, as any horse owner knows, they also like to guard their food and get pretty upset if another horse tries to get a look in, especially if it's a scoop or two of pasture mix.

It is quite natural for horses to form their own hierarchy with each horse knowing it's place within a herd and this translates to horses who share the same paddock. Lower ranking horses have to snatch food and eat it quickly when they can because they know they will be pushed off their food by other horses that have a better ranking than them.

When horses eat too fast just as with other animals and humans, it can cause all sorts of problems one of which is called “choke”. This is a very serious condition to have to deal with and which could prove fatal if the horse is not helped as quickly as possible. Horses can still breath when they are suffering from choke but this doesn't mean the condition is any less serious because their oesophagus could rupture or a muscle might be torn. There's also a risk of some regurgitated food getting back in their mouths which the horse then proceeds to inhale – the result could be a lung infection or worse!

Steps You Can Take to Prevent Choke

If you notice your horse eats far too fast and you are worried this might bring on choke, there are certain things you can do to slow them down which are listed below:

  • Feed your horse several smaller portions rather than one big one. You could try just giving them half their normal feed ration and wait for them to finish it before giving them the rest of them food. You could also try dividing their feed into three portions and see how it goes.
  • Always separate horses when they are being fed – remember there is a hierarchy that each horse has to respect which means the “top” horse will rule the roost. Any horse under them will have to rush their food to make sure they get it before being pushed off by another horse with a higher ranking.
  • Your horse should always have access to plenty of fresh, clean drinking water when they are being fed so they can take a drink when want to – you may have noticed your horse doing this or found their water buckets filled with food or hay – this is because they like to drink when they are eating and the water together with their saliva helps the food go down that much better.
  • Place some large rocks or stones in your horse's food bowl making sure they are big enough so your horse cannot swallow them. The stones will slow your horse down when they're eating because they will need to push them around in order to get to their food.
  • Make sure your horse's teeth are in good condition, remember the dentist should have a look at their teeth at least every six months. If your horse cannot chew their food properly because of a dental problem, they are greater risk of suffering from choke because they cannot chew their food properly.
  • If your horse is prone to choke, it's always a good idea to stick around when they are eating so that if anything untoward happens, you can deal with it straight away.

Horses that experience choke when there's no one around to help them might colic which is something to avoid at all costs. Then there's the risk of their oesophageal tissue becoming necrotic or it could stretch and tear. Choke can prove fatal to horses so it's a condition that should never be taken lightly.

Signs to Watch Out For

One of the obvious signs that something is wrong is when you see lots of saliva together with feed coming out of your horse's nostrils or mouth and sometimes both. Other signs to watch out for are as follows:

  • Your horse will have difficulty breathing
  • They will seem depressed
  • Your horse will have trouble swallowing

Your horse may be panic-stricken, they will cough and gag like they are trying to clear their throats so it's crucial to call the vet out immediately. A horse with choke might quickly dehydrate and if the oesophagus does rupture, they may even go into shock but luckily this rarely happens – however, you still need to get a vet out straight away so they can treat your horse appropriately.

Treatment for Choke

Most horses will eventually produce enough of their own saliva which lubricates the obstruction so they can swallow and get rid of it. However, vets often give a mild sedative or sometimes a spasmolytic injection which helps relax their throat muscles and this normally works a treat.

However, if the obstruction won't budge, a vet may decide to use a stomach tube and flush the obstruction out. However, your horse would need to be sedated for them to do this safely. If the horse is really panic-stricken, they would need to be anaesthetised so the vet can dislodge the blockage by flushing it out thoroughly without harming the horse or themselves.


Horses that have suffered choke need to be fed sloppy feeds or just be given grass for a few days so any swelling in their throats has a chance to go down. You would need to keep a close eye on your horse and then do everything necessary to slow their eating habits down to lessen the chances of them suffering from choke again. The rule of thumb when you think your horse has choke is to stay calm and get the vet out immediately so they can administer the right treatment.



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