Esophageal obstruction or choke occurs when partially chewed feed, treats or hay get stuck in the horse’s esophagus.
This is a common emergency with horses. In fact, I have seen several cases recently including my own horse. Signs that your horse is choking include salivating profusely and severe nasal discharge. Particles of food may come out of the mouth or nostrils. Swelling of the esophagus may be seen on the left side of the neck.
The most common causes of choke include gorging on feed, not chewing feed completely, not producing enough saliva to wet the food properly or partial obstruction of the esophagus. Dental problems, such as missing or painful teeth and sharp points, can cause your horse to not completely chew his feed. Obstructions of the esophagus can be caused by tumors or scarring from previous injuries.
If you think your horse is choking, you will want to remove all hay and feed from the area, then call your local veterinarian. It is best to keep your horse calm with his head down to prevent aspiration of any feed material. If your horse aspirates feed material, this can lead to a life-threatening lung infection called aspiration pneumonia. Once you get your horse to the veterinarian, they will sedate your horse and attempt to clear the obstruction by passing a tube through the horse’s nostril and down into the esophagus. If they have access to an endoscope, which is a small tube with a camera at the end, then this may be passed to confirm what is causing the blockage. The vet will flush water down the tube and draw it out to help soften the obstruction. Gentle, yet firm movement of the tube will also help loosen the feed material. Medications may also be given to help relax the esophagus. Obstructions may be quick or difficult to get to pass.
There are several ways to prevent this from happening to your horse. You can place very large rocks — at least the size of your fist — into your horse’s feed tub. This will force him to eat around the rocks and slow down his feed intake. You can also switch the feed bucket to one that is large and shallow. This will spread the grain out into a thin layer, thus forcing your horse to eat slower. You can also feed your horse smaller amounts of food frequently throughout the day. This is actually better for your horse’s gastrointestinal tract. Offering free choice hay can also provide something for him to munch on so he won’t be so hungry come feeding time. If you are feeding your horses in a herd, then it can be helpful to separate them. Dominant horses may push other horses away from their meal, making them eat very fast so that they can finish their grain. If you separate all the horses, then they can eat at their own pace. Ensure that your horse’s teeth are in good shape by having annual teeth floats performed by your veterinarian.