Horse Choke – How to live with a chronic choker

If your horse chokes, its not the end of their life.

By Chris Churchill, Five Star Ranch Staff Writer

The first time I saw a horse choke was terrifying.  The horse had eaten some alfalfa pellets and one of the hard pieces had lodged in the horse’s throat.  The horse was frantically thrashing around with green slime coming out its nose.  We called the vet and got a halter on the horse –barely.  The vet sedated the horse and ran a tube up the horse’s nose with ran a small amount of water to loosen the item.  That finally worked and the horse recovered but it was a very scary scene to witness.

I hear a lot of folks say, if a horse chokes once, he’ll choke again.  While that might be common, it wasn’t true for this horse.  That horse lived with me for another 20 years and never had another choke episode. That said, I also never fed him alfalfa pellets again.   My vet at the time said most of his chokes were caused by the hard alfalfa pellets.  That particular horse liked to bolt down his food, so the combination of his eating style and hard pellets were not good.  I do like giving my horses alfalfa though – especially my older guys but now I give fresh alfalfa or alfalfa cubes after they had been softened in water.

The other thing I did when feeding that horse was to spread out his food in a long feeding tray (long hay trough). This kept him from gobbling it down as fast. I’ve heard other people get success using a slow feeder or placing large rocks in his feed bowl so the horse is forced to move the rocks around to eat.

If you are unlucky enough to have a horse choke, call your vet immediately. While most horses resolve the situation quickly, my first choker got more and more violent as the choke persisted. We needed the vet to sedate and treat the horse.

Esophagus Stricture

Years later I had a beautiful mare that developed an esophagus stricture.  We are not sure exactly how that occurred but the two main theories were a tubing gone wrong or a stick in her pasture that injured the esophagus.  Whatever the cause, my sweet girl started choking on a regular basis.  If you’ve seen a horse in choke, you feel very helpless. Most horses come out of the choke naturally…they work it out, but that knowledge isn’t particularly comforting when you see your beloved horse struggling.

In the case of the mare that started choking regularly, there was an extra bad side effect.  She would get through the choke but the pain and trauma from the choke would send her into colic.  We started seeing a regular pattern.  Choke, then colic.

Since this cycle was happening with regularity, the vet used a scope to go down the horse’s esophagus to try to determine the root problem.   The scope showed there was a tight spot in her esophagus that was very small and because of the scar tissue it wouldn’t stretch like the rest of the esophagus.  This meant that she could only pass very small particles of food.

My vet referred me to a surgical clinic to get their thoughts.  Sadly after talking it over with four vets, the general consensus was because of the location of the stricture inside the sternum, the chances of the horse surviving the surgery were not optimistic.  All the vets recommended against surgery.  We would either have to put her down or develop a way for her to eat.

Liquid Diet Saves The Day

The main advice from the vet was to put the horse on a liquid diet.  No hay, no hard pellets.  We switched her to a complete senior feed that had ground alfalfa in the feed and then we make it into a soup by adding water.   We let the senior feed sit in the water to soften and then add a bit more so it was very liquidy when we give it to the horse. 

The ritual we evolved to is to serve her “soup” in a large rubber tub and she laps it up.  I put the rubber tub on top of rubber mats so she can lap up any dribbles after the main course. Watching her eat is not a pretty sight and she often ends up wearing part of her meal.

Even with this plan, my vet warned me she would probably only last 6 months.  I was heartbroken because this was my main riding horse and I loved her.  She and I were in sync and I was crushed to learn she would never be the same.

I decided against putting her down because when she wasn’t choking she still had a spirited look in her eye.  She wasn’t ready to go anywhere.  I was determined to do what I could to let her live out her life comfortably until she signaled to me she was ready. 

The vet recommended I talk with a horse nutritionist to see if there were other things I could do to keep my mare healthy.  I explained the situation to the nutritionist and asked for advice.  She agreed with making the liquid version of complete senior feed a couple times a day and she recommended letting the horse have access to some grass each day if she could eat it without choking.  I was lucky because the soft grass didn’t cause her to choke and would supply food for the good bacteria in her hind gut.  Apparently they need long stem grass to thrive.

One of my concerns was that the main pasture where she had been ran along a road that many people walk along.  I was worried some neighbor child might innocently feed her a carrot which might kill my mare.  To be safe, I moved my girl to a back pasture that didn’t have road frontage where she and a companion horse could have the pasture to themselves.  When I bring them up to feed, the companion horse eats hay in his stall while the mare is eating her soup and then the two go back out in the pasture.

One of the things my vet has warned me is that a horse in choke can sometimes aspirate the food getting it into the trachea and lungs which might put the horse at risk for pneumonia.  While I’m not a vet, I watch my horse closely for any behavior change that might indicate she is sick.

My mare’s chronic choke was caused by trauma and then scar tissue constricting in her esophagus, it wasn’t due to a condition like megaesophagus. Sadly, the horses I’ve known with that condition did not fare as well as my mare.

It’s been nearly nine years since the stricture in my horse’s esophagus first appeared so we have outlived the vet’s initial estimate.  With careful management and help from my vets and the equine nutritionist, my mare is still going strong.  She will be 21 on her next birthday.  She gave me her all in her early years, so I feel she has earned a relaxing retirement.  She knows she is loved and that is the best we can give them.