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Dealing With Choke in Horses

Horses definitely do focus on food a lot. They graze most of the day, every day. They do this for several reasons: As grazers of grass, they don't get a lot of nourishment per mouthful. Grass is more fiber than anything else, so they have to eat a lot of it. Also consider that grass isn't that tasty a food source, either. Then there's the fact that horses are prey animals, so they're always on the lookout for predators and feel they need to eat quickly to stay fed and safe.

Now, you come along and deposit a pail of tasty oats representing a concentrated source of nourishment. The horse badly wants to eat those oats and also do it before any other horses may come around to compete for some of it. The final result is the equine gluttony we see with a substantial number of horses. And some horses will even eat thick grass quickly and can choke on that. So, there is a risk of choke with any horse under the right circumstances.

The risks from choke can be very serious and threaten the horse's life. Unlike humans, horses can have a blocked esophagus and still be able to breathe. While that may sound less serious, there are other dangers from choke. For example, a large enough clump of food can tear the smooth muscle of the esophagus or the esophagus can actually rupture. Or some of the clump can be regurgitated back into the mouth and be inhaled. That saliva-rich clump will be teaming with bacteria that can cause a massive lung infection leading to pneumonia and ultimately death. And choke will sometimes lead to colic which can also kill. So, choke can be a very serious matter, indeed!

As for actions you can take to reduce a horse's speed of eating, here are some suggestions:

  1. Feed your horse in several smaller feedings rather than all at once. For example, feed him only half of his normal allotment, let him finish, and then give him the rest. Or break his meal into three smaller servings if need be;
  2. If your horse eats in a field or paddock with other horses, separate them (or at least him) during feeding time. Some horses get pushed away by more senior horses who take their food. These "victims" will often try to eat faster to make sure they get enough before their food gets taken by another horse;
  3. Make sure your horse has plenty of clean drinking water available with his food so he can drink while he eats and isn't forced to try eating and swallowing food moistened only by his saliva;
  4. Place several large (grapefruit size), smooth rocks into your horse's feed pail. He'll easily move then around as he eats, but it will cause him to eat more slowly and thereby reduce his risk of choking;
  5. Some horses have trouble adequately chewing their food due to bad teeth. Have your horse examined by a true equine dentist (a veterinarian with additional training in animal dentistry). If bad teeth are the problem, the dentist may be able to correct the problem. It may even be nothing more than having his teeth floated; and
  6. Feed him when you or the barn owner has enough time to stay while he eats. This way, there will be someone there to assure he's ok after eating before he's left alone.

If a horse has actually experienced choke, the last suggestion is especially important. You don't want to chance having a horse experience a choke condition overnight and into the next morning. The horse could colic, stretched esophageal tissue could become necrotic, the esophagus could be stretched so much it tears, or some other possible serious complication could lead to death of the horse. For fast-eating horses, especially those that have prior experience with choke, it's wise to make sure the horse has finished eating and is ok before you leave the barn.

Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com. He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.

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