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Is Your Horse Choking
by Eleanor Richards

Your horse is choking.
Will the Heimlich maneuver help him?  Can it be performed on a horse?
There is a difference between a horse choking and a human choking.        
The horse has a blocked esophagus (tube from the mouth to the stomach). He can still breathe.
The human has a blocked trachea (windpipe).  He cannot breathe and death is imminent. The object in the human must be dislodged within minutes of the blockage occurring.
The Heimlich maneuver will help the human, but not the horse. The Heimlich maneuver forces air out of the lungs, into the trachea and dislodges the object.
Go to for more information about the Heimlich maneuver.
A horse chokes because a foreign object is blocking the esophagus. This object may be an apple, corn cob, hay cube, a wad of improperly chewed feed, baler twine…anything that has been swallowed whole.
The equine esophagus could also be blocked by a growth (tumor) or scar tissue from trauma (a previous choke episode or damage to the sensitive tissue because of a medical procedure).
Symptoms of choke in horses:
~ Heavy nasal discharge that contains bits of feed and white foamy saliva
~ Excessive salivation
~ Stretching and extending the neck
~ Attempts to retch
~ Inability to swallow
~ Coughing and blowing out feed through the mouth and nose
Call your veterinarian and remove all feed as soon as you see any of these symptoms.  Even though the horse can still breathe this is a medical emergency. Prolonged obstruction can cause scar tissue. Aspiration of fluid in to the lungs can cause pneumonia.
The veterinarian will flush the esophagus with fluids to try and dislodge the object — forcing it into the stomach. A tranquilizer may be administered to get the horse to relax and lower his head.
If it is determined the object is too large to dislodge with lavage (flushing) or if the object is not digestible, surgery will need to be performed. An incision into the esophagus will be made to remove the object.
After the object is removed or forced in to the stomach the veterinarian may want to use an endoscope to determine how much damage was done to the sensitive tissue.
During the healing process the horse should be fed soft gruel. One of the senior or complete feeds works well. These products contain the fiber a horse needs and are designed to be soaked. Follow the feeding directions, small frequent meals are going to be needed.  Hay and pasture should be avoided until the healing is completed.
The amount of damage done to the esophagus will determine how long the horse needs the special diet; it’s possible he’ll be on it the rest of his life.
To prevent choke do the following:
~ Avoid large chunks of food — treats, apples, carrots
~ Avoid grass clippings
~ Avoid poor quality forage or hay (overly mature and stemmy)
~ Avoid feeding after sedation
~ Avoid leaving foreign objects within reach (remove the baler twine!)
~ Place several large rocks in the feeder if the horse bolts his feed
~ Soak the feed for senior horses, horses with poor teeth or a previous history of choking
 ~ Chose a feed designed to meet the nutritional needs of the horse and can be offered as a gruel, if needed
~ Make sure the horse is receiving proper and regular dental care
Wrap your arms around your horse’s neck for a hug (not for the Heimlich maneuver) and practice good management. Most choke episodes can be avoided.
Proper nutrition and management practices can prevent many problems associated with caring for horses. You can learn how to provide your horse with a better life-style by taking the online course “How to Feed for Maximum Performance” taught by Eleanor Richards. For more information go to Contact Eleanor at or 440/554-3714. Be sure to visit Eleanor’s website at

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