Winter May Mean Choke to Your Horse

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If you’ve ever seen a horse choke, you’re not likely to forget it. Choke occurs when food gets caught in the esophagus, not in his airway, as occurs with people. The horse will cough and retch. Heavy salivation is likely, and he’ll be anxious and upset. He likely won’t eat or drink.

Choke can be mild, but it’s always a veterinary emergency, especially since its symptoms can mimic those of rabies.

When choke occurs, dehydration can occur rapidly, and the pressure on the esophagus can cause an ulcer or rupture. Unfortunately, choke is likely to happen again, because scarring in the esophagus usually occurs after a choke or the choke may have been caused by a motility problem in the esophagus.


Horses prone to choke should be fed wet feeds, and all horses should be encouraged to consume adequate amounts of water. Add one ounce (two tablespoons) of table salt to your horse’s feed every day to encourage more water consumption.

Wet feeds are easier for the horse to swallow and chew. Good choices for wet meals include:

•Beet pulp is well tolerated even if fed occasionally. It soaks up four times its volume in water. Add 2 to 3 oz. of rice bran or 4 oz. of wheat bran per pound to balance major minerals. One pound beet pulp about equals 1 pound of oats in calories.

• Soaked hay cubes or pellets can hold up to twice their volume in water. They take longer to soak than beet pulp but are a good choice for horses that can’t chew hay well. Substitute pound per pound for normal dry hay.

• Complete, senior and high-fiber feeds can also be soaked before feeding. They contain high-fiber ingredients, such as hay, beet pulp or soy hulls, and hold about twice their volume of water. Caloric values vary widely. High beet-pulp feeds with added molasses may be similar pound-per-pound to straight grain mixes, while complete feeds can be as low as one-half to three-quarters the calorie value per pound as grains.

• Wet wheat bran is well-liked by most horses. It has a mild laxative effect, and its high phosphorus content requires mineral balancing, if it’s fed regularly. You can accomplish this by feeding 1 to 1.5 times as much by weight of alfalfa pellets/cubes with the bran, or by adding 1.5 tablespoons of calcium carbonate powder or crushed human calcium tablets to the feed (5 grams of calcium per pound).

Monitor your horse for signs of dehydration or an inadequate water intake. Watch his manure for changes to small, dry balls or any evidence of mucus on the manure, and check the mouth to be sure it feels moist, indicating adequate hydration. Skin-pinch checks are difficult under heavy winter coats, so we don’t recommend using them in the winter months.