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Feeding Horses to Reduce the Risk of Choke and to Support Horses that Have Choked

Robert Jacobs, Ph.D.

Equine Innovation Manager

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Purina Animal Nutrition

Choke (esophageal obstruction) is an ever-present risk for all horses. Certain management strategies and nutritional interventions can reduce the risk of choke in horses, and for horses with a history of choke, nutritional management can be critical in reducing the risk of future episodes.

Choke is the most common esophageal disorder in horses, and horses can choke for a variety of reasons. Risk factors for choke include but are not limited to problems with dentition, bolting of feedstuffs, and inappropriately sized dietary components. Esophageal obstruction is most common in aged horses; however, horses of all age are susceptible to choke. Limiting the risk of choke in horses can be summarized into three main objectives:
  1. Maintenance of optimal dentition
  2. Appropriate feed selection and management
  3. Post choke feeding management

Maintenance of Optimal Dentition

Sub-optimal dentition is a key contributing risk factor in esophageal obstruction in horses. Ongoing research at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center aims to elucidate the differences in chewing physiology of horses of different ages and dentition statuses, along with the effect of diet on chewing. Factors such as pellet length, diameter and hardness all result in differences in chewing parameters in horses. Purina® Equine Senior® horse feed has been specifically formulated and is uniquely manufactured to support optimal chewing behavior. Additionally, forage consumption and fiber source result in measurable differences in chewing parameters. However, the greatest risk factor for choke appears to be aberrant dentition. The maintenance of optimal dentition should be the backbone of any management strategy related to reducing the risk of choke. For senior horses, the maintenance of appropriate chewing surfaces is critical and identification of horses with reduced chewing capacity can reduce the risk of esophageal obstruction. Horses with dental issues may drop feed or quid forage, leaving bundles of chewed grass or hay.

Appropriate Feed Selection and Management

Horses with sufficient chewing surfaces should have little trouble in properly masticating and consuming a variety of feedstuffs. Purina Horse Feeds are formulated to specific hardness values that are known to be suitable for horses. Some horses may rapidly consume concentrate offered to them. This “bolting” of feed is a contributing risk factor for choke. One method to slow consumption time is through the use of obstacles placed in the horses feed pan. Large, smooth rocks, salt blocks, or other devices may be placed in feed pans to prolong meal consumption. Horses may also bolt feed when group-fed alongside more dominant horses, and separating horses to feed individually can reduce this behavior. Research has also indicated that feed consumed from ground level pans results in more appropriate chewing and reduced risk of choke. Horses secrete saliva only in response to feed intake. Thus, ensuring horses have access to water at the time of feeding will help to provide additional lubrication to feedstuffs. Soaking or wetting feeds is another option for horses that may be at risk of choke. Purina® Equine Senior® horse feed is specifically designed with Easy Soak™ Technology that allows it to quickly soak into a mash that reduces the risk of esophageal obstruction. However, all Purina feeds are capable of being soaked or wetted, and a good rule of thumb is a 2:1 mixture of warm water to feed to produce a mash. Forage selection is also important for horses at risk of choke. Cubed or pelleted forages or forage alternatives such as Purina® Impact® Hay Stretcher are good options for horses that can no longer consume long-stemmed forage. Finally, treats such as carrots, apples, and hay cubes should be small enough to allow a horse to properly chew, with a good guideline that they should be no larger than “thumb-sized”.

Post Choke Feeding Management

Horses that have experienced a choke occurrence may need more specific management following the event. Once the obstruction has cleared, an insult to the tissue is often present. This bruising may result in a thickening of the esophagus that may in fact predispose the horse to future choking episodes. In severe cases of post choke management, horses may require enteral feeding. Once the horse is stable, concentrate and forage should be slowly introduced back to the diet and should be thoroughly soaked to support esophageal motility. Forage introduction should be conducted slowly, and forage alternatives should be used initially to reduce the risk of future choke episodes. Bulky fiber sources such as beet pulp should be avoided during the initial period post choking. Make sure to provide access to clean water at all times to these horses while eating to promote intake.

Conclusion

Esophageal obstructions are a risk to all horses, however senior horses and horses with poor dentition are most susceptible. Ensuring all horses have appropriate dental care can help reduce this risk. Slowing rate of intake is a useful method to reduce the risk of choke in horses. For horses at risk of choking, such as senior horses, providing feeds designed to soak such as Purina® Equine Senior® horse feed can help to support intake without increasing the risk of esophageal obstruction. Horses that have a history of choke are more likely to experience repeated occurrences. These horses should be managed more intensively and provided with soaked feeds and forage alternatives. While choke is an ever-present risk, nutritional management strategies can reduce this risk for horses.

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