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Horses can choke on their food due to their feeding behavior, physiological or medical issues, and even feeding management of the diet. Symptoms of a choking horse include appearing anxious, extending neck, coughing or gagging sounds, drooling, and even salvia existing from nostrils.
Horses aren’t inherently prone to choking on feed. Management of horses has changed with each generational turnover and grazing pastures as a primary source of forage continues to diminish because of land prices and zoning restrictions in suburbia.
Fortunately, there are a few precautions that horse owners can take to minimize the risk of choking.
- Horses at a lower “pecking order” in the stable are more at risk of choking because they sense competition from other horses (even those in another stall). Identify them by observing during feeding and also downtime with stable mates.
- Horses that bolt their feed, are generally nervous, or are aggressive eaters may need to be managed differently during feeding.
- Consider the following options for managing these at-risk horses:
- Feed smaller amounts more frequently.
- Use a wide and shallow feed container. Place large, irregular shaped stones (not boulders or rocks) that forces the horse to navigate around the stones to eat. Stones must be large enough that they cannot be mouthed or picked up by the horse. The goal is to slow down the amounts of feed consumed per mouthful.
- Consider adding water to soften dry or bulky feed, even mixing it to an oatmeal consistency.
- Water sources should be next to feeding areas.
- Does your horse chew his food? Chewing reduces the particle size of the feed and moistens the feed via salvia to ease the passage down the esophagus. Salvia has a critical role in maintaining gut pH and thus contributes to a healthy microbial population.
- Dental exams are important. Horses with abscess, loose or missing teeth, or gum inflammation may not chew food completely before swallowing.
- When feeding carrots, orange peels or apples as treats, cut them into small pieces and feed one at a time.
- If a horse is stressed or on pain meds, then feed small amounts more frequently. Plan to hang around and observe during feeding times.
- As always, discuss any choking issues with your veterinarian to determine if any treatment is needed.