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We all know the sight: the overly eager horse in the barn, screaming and pacing its stall as soon as it hears the first drop of grain into a bucket. Unable to contain its excitement when it is fed, the horse gulps down the feed, practically within minutes. While this may be an everyday routine for many horses, have you, as a horse owner, ever thought about the consequences of an impatient, quick-to-consume eater?
One of the most significant repercussions of a horse that eats too quickly is developing esophageal obstruction (choke). Choke occurs when the horse’s esophagus, the internal tube that connects the throat to the stomach, is either partially or fully blocked by large clumps of food or other foreign materials. This leaves a serious and potentially deathly situation for the horse, as it is unable to push anything out of its airway and therefore unable to breathe.
Many situations could potentially cause a horse to choke, yet eating food too quickly is the most common predecessor of choke. Another common situation that easily causes choke is a horse that has poor dental condition. If a horse has not had its annual dental examination, its teeth may be in too poor condition to chew its food properly. Occasionally, horse treats, such as carrots, apples, or alfalfa cubes, are given in portions too large to a horse, leaving the horse with difficulty chewing and breaking down the feed. If anything is eaten too quickly, a horse is at risk of blocking the esophagus. Pelleted feeds present a higher risk of esophageal blockage, as the horse can eat the smaller pellets more quickly than larger cubes.
Oftentimes, soaking a horse’s feed is used as a preventative measure for choke. However, if the feed (such as beet pulp shreds) is not adequately soaked before being given to the horse, the unsaturated elements could cause choke. Similarly, a horse that does not drink enough water is also at a higher risk of choke, as the esophagus may be too dry to push the food to the stomach. Lastly, a horse that is under sedation is not properly able to chew and digest its food, putting it at greater risk, as well as horses who consume foreign, non-feed objects. Young horses that consume feed meant for mature horses, such as larger pelleted grain or dry stemmed hay, are more likely to choke because they are unable to chew their food properly. Also, horses lose their teeth as they get older, so aging horses may not be able to chew and swallow food due to declining dental conditions. These horses may require a complete feed or to have their feed soaked before mealtimes.
Luckily, there are a variety of preventative measures that can be implemented to reduce a horse’s risk of choke. First, make sure your horse receives dental care at least every 6 months; some horses may require visits more frequently depending on their dental condition. Dental examinations and floating ensure that the horse’s teeth are in good working order to chew its food. During mealtimes, slow down your horse’s consumption by placing the grain in a shallow feed pan on the ground instead of in a bucket hung at chest level. Put large rocks or salt blocks in the pan with the feed so that the horse must work around the obstacles. Make sure the rocks are large enough that the horse could not accidentally eat them. Many equine businesses also sell a shallow feeding pan built with small holes in the bottom designed to slow the eating process. If feeding in a pasture setting, try to separate the pasture horses during feed time so that a horse does not feel pressured by its herd members in fear that its grain will be taken. If feeding pelleted/cubed feed or beet pulp/alfalfa cubes, soak the feed before giving it to the horse so that the feed resembles a soft mush. Pelleted/cubed feed can be soaked 5-10 minutes before consumption, while beet pulp or alfalfa will need at least 30 minutes. When giving hay, put the hay in a slow feeder hay net to reduce rapid consumption. And lastly, when giving treats, offer the snacks in bite-sized portions, as entrusting a horse to bite its large apples or carrots into smaller pieces may put it at risk of choking.
Complete feeds are alternatives for horses who are choke-prone, as these feeds can make up 100% of the horse’s diet and replace its hay intake. Feeding a complete feed reduces the risk of choking on hay. Senior Needs® is a complete feed since it provides full amounts of essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber content. This feed is ideal for horses that do not need to eat hay or those seeking to limit calories. Senior Needs® can be served as the grain portion of a diet that includes forage, or it can be served without forage as a complete feed.
What are the next steps if your horse has a choking episode? As with any equine emergency, call a veterinarian immediately to treat the horse and then advise on the next best steps for recovery. The most obvious sign that a horse requires immediate veterinary attention for choke is its ease of breath; if a horse seems to have difficulty breathing, it needs immediate veterinary attention. After the vet visits your horse, it is best to let the esophagus rest, especially if it is inflamed after its treatment. Place your horse inside a stall with only water available – this will force the horse to drink water and relieve the inflammation. Lastly, feed the horse’s grain soaked for several days following the choke.
Hopefully, a choke will never be in your horse’s future, but with these tips, you will be ready to confidently tackle any feeding dilemma that comes your horse’s way.