Last Sunday we had a bit of drama on the yard, one of the horses got choke! Thankfully it wasn’t too serious, but it caused a bit of panic at the time.

My other half went to check on Duke, who was out at the time & gave him a little bit of coarse mix as usual, but after taking a few mouthfuls he suddenly started to choke. After I got a panicked phone call, I went to investigate & to see what the story was & decided to pop him into a stable to keep an eye on him. Tried to gently massage his throat to see if that would help, but it didn’t seem to have any effect so I gave the vet a call. I tend not to get overly excited in situations like this so after I explained the story to the vet over the phone he decided the best course of action was to wait a couple of hours & see if it would pass itself  before he came out. Obviously if he got an worse we were to let him know & he’d be straight out.

Kept an eye on him for a few hours, OH was very anxious the whole time – he often thinks I’m far to laid back about what he deems emergencies, I think he gets over excited about non-emergencies!

Anyway a few hours later Duke still hadn’t improved, but hadn’t got any worse either so I gave the vet a call back & he decided to come out & give him some drugs to see if that helped. So out he comes and gives him an injection of  an antispasmodic drug (spasmolytics) to relax the oesophagus & hopefully allow the blockage to pass. Thankfully the drugs done the trick & the offending blockage eventually passed, without the need for any further action. Apart from feeling a little sorry for himself on monday morning Duke has suffered no ill effects from the ordeal.

For those of you haven’t heard of choke before, I have included some information below. It is quite a serious condition & normally requires veterinary attention as if left untreated it can be fatal and there is also a risk of serious complications such as aspiration pneumonia developing.

Choke is a condition in horses in which the oesophagus becomes blocked, usually by food material. Although the horse is still able to breathe, it is unable to swallow, and may become severely dehydrated. A secondary condition, aspiration pneumonia, may also develop if food material and saliva accumulate in the pharynx, spilling into the trachea and into the lungs.

Horses may develop choke if they do not chew their food properly. Therefore, horses with dental problems that do not allow them to completely grind their food are particularly at risk. Horses that bolt their feed and do not take the time to chew properly are also more likely to suffer from choke.

Dry foods may cause choke, especially if the horse does not have free access to water, or if the horse has other risk factors linked to choke.  While pelleted or cubed feeds in general fall in this category, beet pulp is the main cause for concern. . However, research suggests that horses that bolt their feed without sufficient chewing, or who do not have adequate access to water, are far more likely to choke, regardless of the type of feed, compared to horses that eat at a more leisurely rate. The risk of choke associated with any dry feed can be reduced by soaking the ration prior to feeding.

Horse may also get choke by ingesting non-edible materials such as pieces of wood. Cribbers may be more prone to this type of choke, if they happen to swallow a piece of wood or other material while cribbing.

Signs of Choke

  • Difficulty swallowing (horse may try to swallow without success)
  • Disinterest in food
  • Coughing
  • Extending the neck and head, usually in a downward direction
  • Discharge from the nostrils, usually green in colour, although it may also be yellow or clear & often looks like vomit
  • Increased salivation, saliva drooling from the mouth
  • Heart rate may increase slightly, due to the distress of the animal
  • Occasionally, a lump on the side of the neck is visible or can be palpated, where the oesophagus is blocked. This is normally most obvious on the left.

Choking horses should be deprived of food and drink pending veterinary attention, so as not to increase the obstructive load within the oesophagus. In most cases, saliva continually produced in the mouth lubricates the offending obstruction, eventually allowing its passage to the stomach. If this doesn’t work, the vet will often sedate the horse and/or administer spasmolytics, such as butylscopolamine, to help the oesophagus to relax. Once the muscles of the oesophagus no longer try to force the food down the throat (active peristalsis), it may slip down on its own accord. Usually this is all that is required.

If spasmolytics do not solve the problem, the vet may need to pass a stomach tube through one of the nostrils and direct it into the oesophagus until the material is reached, at which point gentle pressure is applied to manually push the material down, with the head positioned lower than the oesophagus.  Gentle warm water lavage (water sent through the stomach tube, to soften the food material) may be required to help the obstructing matter pass more easily, but caution should be exercised to prevent further aspiration of fluid into the trachea.  This can be a long process and patience is needed to avoid damaging the oesophagus.  In some nervous, uncooperative or solidly-obstructed cases it is necessary to anaesthetise the horse to allow flushing to be performed safely and thoroughly. 

The material caught in the horse’s throat often causes inflammation, which may later lead to scarring. Scarring reduces the diameter of the oesophagus which increases the chance that the horse may choke again. The vet may therefore place the horse on a course of NSAIDs, to help to control the inflammation of the oesophagus. The vet may also place the horse on a course of broad-spectrum antibiotics to prevent the onset of aspiration pneumonia. The animal should be monitored for several days to ensure that it does not develop pneumonia, caused by inhalation of bacteria-rich food material into the lungs.

Once the choke is cleared the horse should be fed softened food or grass for a few days, allowing the oesophagus to heal, before it is allowed to gradually resume its normal diet (e.g. hay and unsoaked grain). Horses with re-occurring chokes may require their diet to be changed.


  • Always provide water for the horse
  • Soak dry foods before feeding to horses prone to choke
  • Change feeds gradually
  • Discourage the bolting of food: spread out feed, place large, flat stones (large enough so that the horse can not swallow it) or salt blocks in the feed bin so that the horse must slow down, or feed smaller meals more often
  • Cut apples, carrots, or other treats into small pieces
  • Withhold feed material for one hour following sedation
  • Keep your horse’s environment cleaned of foreign material, such as twine, wire, and small bits of wood or metal.
  • Ensure horses teeth are checked regularly

About Tullavilla

A long time horse owner returning to riding after an 8 year break. Currently back competing at Riding Club level in Show Jumping & occasionally Dressage.

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