Choke occurs when partially chewed food gets wadded up and stuck in the esophagus. The horse coughs excessively, trying to shift the mass. Saliva and particles of food exit the nostrils, since the horse is unable to swallow. Depending on where the obstruction is, you may or may not be able to see a lump from the outside.
In some cases, it’s difficult to identify choke as distinct from fairly regular horse behaviors. To correctly identify choke, look to see if the horse is coughing or unable to swallow. One of the most certain signs of choke is the regurgitation of feed through both the mouth and nostrils.
Some horses are able to resolve a mild choke on their own. Allow the horse to relax and keep it away from food and water temporarily. Choke can be a medical emergency. Some horses are very uncomfortable and can behave similarly to a colic. If the choke does not seem to be resolving contact your veterinarian.
A number of factors can lead to a choke.
As soon as you suspect your horse is choking, remove all feed and hay, so he can’t eat anything else, adding to the problem. Call the vet immediately.
While you’re waiting for the vet, encourage the horse to stand quietly, with his head down. This will decrease the chance that anything he coughs up will find it’s way into his trachea and lungs and possibly cause aspiration pneumonia, a complication that sometimes arises after a choke has cleared.
When treating choke, the vet’s objective is to clear the obstruction from the esophagus. This is done by passing a tube through the horse’s nostril and down into the esophagus, to the point of the obstruction.
The vet then flushes water into the tube and syphons it back out again. This usually has to be done many times, sometimes taking two or more buckets of water. Each time, a bit more of the matted food is washed away and the mass gets smaller.
By carefully working the tube back and forth in the esophagus, the vet can move the obstruction down into the stomach and clear the choke. Care has to be taken so the esophagus is not damaged or ruptured in the process.
There are a number of ways in which the horse owner can help prevent a choke.