Although I had heard of horses choking before, I hadn’t thought much about it and therefore was at a loss as to what to do. I gently ran my hand down her throat and was surprised to feel the lump move down a little, so I did it again and the lump seemed to disappear down at the base of her neck. Then I tied her to the hitching rail and went in to call the vet. Luckily I caught him at home – naturally it was after hours! – and he said that he’d be right out.
I went back out to Joy to find her seemingly calm at the hitching rail, but when I touched her, I could feel that she was very slightly quivering. I threw a blanket over her just in case she started sweating and then stood there with her waiting for the vet to show up.
When Dr. Harms arrived he confirmed that it was, indeed, a case of choke. He sedated Joy, ran a tube down her esophagus, pumped some water in and very carefully managed to get the lump cleared down into her stomach.
Dr. Harms is always willing to talk things over to help me to understand what is going on, so we then had a long discussion on the causes of choke, what to do during an episode and how to prevent it.
Choke, which is an obstruction of the esophagus, but not the windpipe, is generally caused by
- Not chewing properly due to poor teeth,
- Eating too quickly,
- Not producing enough saliva to moisten food, or
- Previous scarring in the esophagus or a partial blockage, such as a tumor.
During an episode of choke the horse may stretch out his neck; drink water trying to dislodge the lump, causing coughing and expelling of water, saliva and food particles out the nose; and/or exhibit excessive saliva and drooling.
Complications can include aspiration pneumonia, scarring of the esophagus, a potential rupture of the esophagus, and if not corrected, the horse could die due to not being able to eat or drink.
I was told that the first thing one needs to do is to remove all food and drink so that the horse cannot complicate things by continuing to try to eat. The second step is to call a vet and then try to keep the horse calm until he arrives.
Preventing choke can be fairly simple:
- Make sure that your horse has regular dental checks to keep sharp points from forming on his teeth which make eating difficult,
- Older horses may need softer feed,
- Keep a greedy, fast eater from bolting his feed by putting some rocks in his feed pan.
Unknowingly, I had done all the right things: a gentle massage can sometimes move things along, I had taken Joy away from her food, I called my vet, and then I had stayed with her, talking, petting her and keeping her from becoming agitated.
Joy has always been a fast eater so I now put 3 or 4 very large rocks in her food bucket to slow her down. She very kindly removes each of those rocks as she gets to the end of her food so that the next time I put the grain in her bucket, all I have to do is put the rocks back in on top!