A horse I ride suffered with a bout of choke on the weekend, which I think is a good enough topic to chat about.
I first came across choke about ten years ago – a whole decade … Man I feel old now! – when the younger kids at the yard started getting ponies, who were invariably from the local dealer so used to very little hard feed. Not that they were starved, they just had an all fibre diet in the field. When they settled into their routine and started working harder and receiving a small bucket feed they almost all had a bout of choke.
I would hear my name shouted panicky across the yard, and I, or one of my peers, would drop everything and run over to where a pony would be stood, neck long and low (but not in the dressage sense) and head outstretched, coughing, wheezing, or breathing short, rasping breaths. I would start massaging the jugular groove until the yard owner arrived to supervise and call the vet.
Out of all of these instances I think only a couple required a vet as the kids were usually very quick to spot the problem, and very little food had been ingested, so we could carefully manipulate the bolus so that it broke up and could be swallowed. Usually the ponies had food coming out of their nose, which was quite distressing for the kids. I remember one pony was tubed a couple of times as it kept recurring, and the result was that he was fed his bucket feed a handful at a time.
So what exactly is choke? It is an obstruction of the oesophagus, usually food but can be a growth. Horses with choke find it difficult to breathe as the trachea is pressurised by the oesophagus. Due to the fact that horses cannot be sick the convulsions of their neck muscles only serve to prevent the bolus travelling further down the oesophagus. If the bolus is food then thankfully the saliva produced helps break it down so it can be swallowed, so massaging the area helps destroy the obstruction. If a vet is needed then they usually give a muscle relaxant to stop the convulsions, and then try to scope the horse. Choke is usually treated fairly easily and quickly, but the horse could be sore for a couple of days so a vet may prescribe anti-inflammatories and rest. If the obstruction is not food then it may need to be operated on.
Some horses are particularly prone to choke so there are some measures that can be taken to prevent it.
- Ensure the sugar beet is fully soaked and don’t leave dry sugar beet accessible to horses.
- Dampen feed well. We should all do it, but it’s an easy thing to bypass in a busy morning. For this reason I feed Llani, who only needs chaff, a bit of Calm and Condition as this makes me wet his feed and acts as a bit of a binder for the chaff.
- Don’t feed a hungry horse his bucket feed immediately. They are more likely to gorge their feed and choke. Instead, give them a small holed haynet to get the stomach working before feeding them the bucket. It may be that you need to ensure they have access to more forage, which can be a problem in winter.
- Keep the horse in his routine; if it’s been 36 hours since his bucket feed he will be more enthusiastic and gorge it down.
- Keep an eye on your horse while he’s eating. It’s very easy to give your stabled horse his hard feed and jump straight into the car, but he could easily choke and no one will hear his groans.
- Cut carrots and apples into long, thin slices as the round pieces are liable to get stuck. I prefer my carrots this way as I choked on a round one as a child. Feeding them separately to the bucket can also help prevent choking.
- Soaking hay slows down the rate of eating, and speeds up the rate it is broken down when chewed, so along with using a small holed haynet can help prevent choke.
- Introduce changes in the diet slowly. This stops a horse gorging his dinner as he is used to the quantity and food type; as the changes are made he adjusts slowly and his body adapts.
I think recent promotion of dampened feed types has reduced the number of choke cases as people are feeding wet bucket feeds and adding sufficient water. However, the horse who choked on the weekend lives solely on a diet of hat, so it is something we should all be aware of. I apologise for the rather grotesque picture.