Let’s talk about choke.
On Thursday the Chauffeur/Unpaid groom/Video man/Babysitter went to catch Phoenix. When they came in he commented how easy she was to catch. Not that she’s difficult, but she sometimes wants to know what’s in it for her and needs a treat.
She seemed fine as I tied her up and started grooming. As I began brushing her neck I heard a gurgle coming from her gullet. Then I looked more closely, and just behind her jaw was swollen and very tender when I touched it. She gurgled again, before contracting her neck and retching.
I knew it was choke, but haven’t had to deal with it for a few years. The cases I’ve seen have been ponies gorging dry pony nuts and getting a bolus stuck in their gullet. We used to massage their throat to help break up the blockage, but occasionally they needed tubing.
For those who don’t know, choke is when a horse gets a blockage in their oesophagus. Horses can’t be sick, so despite their retching the blockage can only go one way. My first concern was what the blockage could be. After grilling the chauffeur, we concluded that she had the blockage before she was caught. She’d been standing, not eating, and had only taken the treat from him because he put it under her nose, rather than her usual investigative air. There’s no apples, conkers or anything like that in her field, and she does like to browse the hedgerow, so my primary concern was that she had a stick lodged in her throat.
After a couple of violent spasms in quick succession, and high sensitivity in her neck, I rang the vet. I wanted to check I was doing the correct thing, and also to get Phoenix on their radar in case they needed to come out.
As Phoenix didn’t have anything coming out her nose, the vet told me to wait for fifteen to twenty minutes to see if she resolved it herself. Obviously with no food within her reach. I could massage her neck to soften the bolus to help it clear, so long as she The spasms should become less intense and further apart. Once I think she’s cleared the blockage I should offer her a small sloppy feet – a warm mash – or take her to some grass and see if she starts grazing.
Phoenix stopped retching fairly quickly so when she’d been calm and quiet for ten minutes we offered her some grass. She tucked in happily so after grazing for a few minutes I took her back to the yard to check nothing was amiss.
She was fine, so I turned her out, trying to ignore her disgruntled face at the fact she wasn’t having any dinner!
Choke is seen as a medical emergency because whilst many cases resolve themselves without veterinary attention, there is a risk of dehydration and further complications if the oesophagus has been obstructed for a long time. Instructions range from a large, dry bolus of food (caused by gorging), carrots sliced into discs instead of lengthways (I see a surprising number of people feed carrots this way), to foreign objects like conkers or twigs (why it’s important walkers don’t feed horses over the fence).
The vet’s procedure is to tube the horse to ensure there is a blockage, and then to sedate the horse to help them clear the blockage. In more serious cases, they are tubed and fluids gently sent up to soften and clear the blockage. On rare occasions, surgery is required to remove the blockage.
So whilst it’s very unpleasant to watch your horse spasming with choke, don’t panic. Remove any food, make a note of the frequency of the episodes and then ring your vet who can advise.