Choking in horses – as opposed to humans choking– does not immediately pose a life-threatening condition. A blockage in the esophagus, which usually causes the horse to choke, does not impact their ability to breath. It sure can look scary, especially if you have never seen it before.
What does it look like?
Most horses will be visibly uncomfortable, stretching out their neck or shaking their head and repeated of coughing, retching and gagging. Usually there will be lots of drooling and nasal discharge (including pieces of food being flooded out of the nostrils). Some horses also break out breaking out in sweat as a stress reaction.
What should I do?
Remove all grain and hay. Don’t let the horse graze. If the choking horse continues eating, it can worsen the already existing blockage and make the choke harder to resolve.
Call your vet and follow their directions. In case of a choke the vet will usually clear the blockage in the esophagus by passing a tube through the horse’s nostril down the esophagus and flushing water in and back out, to slowly resolve the blockage. Monitor your horse while your vet is on the way and keep them updated if your horse stops coughing and the nasal discharge subsides. Fortunately, most chokes resolve by themselves within 30mins. However, your vet still might want to examine the esophagus for potential causes of the choke, such as a tumor or other growth in the neck or throat.
What not to do?
Don’t try to squirt water down the horse’s throat. Inhaling water into the lungs, can cause aspiration pneumonia.
Dont administer any medication, unless advised by your vet.
How to prevent choking?
Keep your horse on a regular schedule with dental check ups. Dental abnormalities can cause choking.
Make sure the horse is not eating their grain too fast. One way to slow down fast eaters is to place large stones in their feed bucket or spreading the ration out in a shallow pan.
Break down bigger treats to make it easier for your horse to swallow.
Tanja Schnuderl is a member with The Equine Expert LLC, a multi-discipline equine expert witness and consulting firm with expert equestrians offering legal expert witness and consulting services in court cases and legal matters. Tanja is an expert on Barn Management and Horse Behavior. She is the Barn Manager for Moon Rising Farm just outside Washington DC and Principal of Sigma Equine LLC, an equine appraisal business. Tanja grew up in Germany and was a paralegal for many years. For more information on Tanja Schnuderl email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.theequineexpert.com