Choke – oesophageal obstruction

Every owner will at some time have to deal with an emergency involving their horse, so it is essential to know how to deal with such emergencies before they arise. When you think your horse is unwell or in pain make sure you call your vet immediately. If your horse chokes it should be treated as an emergency – you should learn to recognise it and deal with it appropriately.

Choke is also known as oesophageal obstruction as it is associated with an obstruction in the oesophagus, not the trachea as in humans. Obstructions are usually found at the end of the oesophagus just before the entrance to the stomach.

Poor dental health

Elderly horses and horses with congenital disorders such as malocclusion, loose/missing teeth, sharp edges/hooks, etc will have difficulty chewing their food properly and are particularly at risk

Dry food

This doesn’t pass through the oesophagus as freely as feed that has been dampened with water before feeding, it is always advisable to dampen your horses feed before feeding, this also helps to prevent blockages in the intestines which can cause colic. This is very important of sugar beet, make sure it is properly soaked before feeding.

Bolting feed

If your horse eats its food too quickly without chewing it properly, this can cause a blockage, e.g. large pieces of carrot could get stuck.

Foreign objects

If your horse ingests a foreign object such as a piece of wood, this may become lodged in the oesophagus causing a blockage; this is particularly true of crib-biters.

Signs of choke include:

  • Distress: the horse may panic at the initial inability to swallow.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Not interested in food.
  • Coughing.
  • Head and neck extended in a downwards position.
  • Nasal discharge containing saliva and/or food material.
  • Saliva drooling from the mouth.
  • Increased heart rate caused by distress.

If you find your horse choking you should call your vet immediately and remove any food and water to prevent worsening the obstruction. Your vet will probably sedate your horse to help him relax this also relaxes the muscles of the oesophagus which will hopefully release the blockage.
For more persistent blockages your vet will probably use a stomach tube, inserted via the nostril and down the oesophagus into the stomach, to confirm the extent of the blockage. Your vet will then flush the blockage through by pouring warm water into the tube to soften the blockage and flush it through into the stomach.
Other methods include the use of an endoscope to retrieve foreign objects or to disrupt other obstructions.
If none of these methods are successful, as a last resort, your vet may need to perform an oesophagostomy this is where an incision is made in the oesophagus to enable manual removal of the obstruction in question.

If you follow a few easy steps, you can ensure your horse isnt affected by an oesophageal obstruction:

  • Ensure your horse received regular dental care.
  • Always provide your horse with plenty of water.
  • Dampen each feed with water so they are not dry.
  • Make sure sugar beet pulp is soaked according to manufacturers recommendations.
  • Discourage your horse from bolting its feed – feed little and often.
  • Cut apples, carrots and other treats into small pieces.