Feeding Choke-Prone Horses

Feeding Choke-Prone Horses

Soak feeds prior to mealtime to help slow consumption and prevent obstruction.

Photo: The Horse Staff

To prevent esophageal obstruction, take a page from the scientific journals

Derby, your 15-year-old Thoroughbred, hasn’t finished his grain. A greenish nasal discharge and a large amount of saliva stream from his mouth. He also keeps extending his neck and coughing repeatedly, as if he’s trying to clear his throat. What’s going on here? 

Choke, or esophageal obstruction, occurs when food or foreign materials partially or completely block the esophagus. Choke might not be immediately life-threatening—he can still breathe—but it is distressing, will prevent your horse or pony from eating and drinking, and must be addressed by a veterinarian as soon as possible. In fact, many horses that have choked need to be on antibiotics to prevent or treat aspiration pneumonia, which can be deadly.

In this article, we will discuss which equid groups are at the highest risk for developing feed-related choke and suggest mealtime management techniques to help reduce those risks.

Causes of Choke

Esophageal obstruction occurs most commonly in horses and ponies that consume feed (forage or grain) very quickly without adequate mastication (chewing). In a 2010 article published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, Chiavaccini and Hassel reported that causes of esophageal obstruction in horses include:

  • Ingesting inadequately soaked sugar beet pulp;
  • Ingesting apples or carrots;
  • Rapidly ingesting dry fibrous, pelleted, or cubed feedstuffs;
  • Inadequately masticating due to poor dentition; or
  • Swallowing a foreign object. 

Other reported causes include consuming grain or hay while under heavy sedation and not drinking enough water.

This article continues in the September 2017 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care. Subscribe now and get an immediate download of this issue including this in-depth feature on feeding strategies to prevent esophageal obstruction.

Already a magazine subscriber? Digital subscribers can access their September issue here. Domestic print subscribers who have not received their copy should email circulation@thehorse.com.

About the Author

Kristen M. Janicki, MS, PAS

Kristen M. Janicki, a lifelong horsewoman, was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Sciences from the attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later attended graduate school at the University of Kentucky, studying under Dr. Laurie Lawrence in the area of Equine Nutrition. Kristen began her current position as a performance horse nutritionist for Mars Horsecare, US, Inc., and Buckeye Nutrition, in 2010. Her job entails evaluating and improving the performance of the sport horse through proper nutrition.

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