While the title was meant to be amusing, I actually saw someone ask, on an obscure forum, how to do the Heimlich on a choking horse. I often shake my head and wonder where common sense has gone but I also thought maybe the person was as freaked out as I was when it happened to my horse, Spirit, a few weeks ago.
In short, Spirit, my nine yo Spotted Saddle Horse, was eating some hay cubes. I usually put out a small amount of Alfalfa-Timothy hay cubes to get my two horses to come in from the front field in the afternoons. Plus, I have to use hay stretchers and hay cubes have been my choice for about a year. My other horse, Bo, ran up behind Spirit, startling him. I didn't think anything about it until I saw Spirit walking and coughing. I didn't panic at first because he's coughed before, figured he was just clearing out some material. Then, when he walked into the run-in stall and continued coughing I became concerned. It got worse. Mucous and gunk started coming out of his nostrils. I knew nothing about choking. I've been involved in many horse emergencies over the past seven years but choking was not one of them. I admit, I panicked. I felt helpless. I didn't know what to do. I tried to soothe him but he couldn't clear the debris. Obviously, he'd probably sucked down a hay cube when he was startled. I ran into the house to see what my emergency book said about choke but this time it wasn't much help. I ran back out and tried to keep Spirit calm. It was hot, he was hot, so I sponged him off with cool water. At the time, I didn't realize he could still breathe, unlike humans when we choke. I was afraid he would pass out right there but I noted his breathing continued. After about thirty minutes things calmed down. The hay cube must have moved down. I took the opportunity to run into the house and look up "choking horse" online. I found a very informative, to the point article by Bob Brusie, DVM, Preventing Choke in Horses. I was relieved after reading.
What I learned: Most choke cases resolve themselves within 30-45 minutes. If you call a vet,by the time a vet gets there the episode would have ended. It all depends on the obstruction. You can use a gentle stream of water from a hose to run in the horses's mouth if he'll tolerate it. This helps to stimulate the horse to swallow and move the object down if it's food. I've since purchased a 50cc large animal syringe to have on hand. If you feel a knot on the left side of the horse's neck, below the throatlatch, you might be able to dislodge the object by massaging. You'll need to watch the horse for at least the next 72 hours because it is possible the esophagus has been stretched and may not be back to normal. There is a possibility of another incident. Water down all food you believe my be a problem to make it easier for him to swallow, dry pellets, hay cubes, etc.Surgery is rarely needed. Sometimes a tranquilizer will relax the esophagus enough to allow the obstruction to move on down.
I also asked my personal vet, when I took my cat for his monthly steroid injection, for his thoughts on choking horses. He said in his experience, 95% of the time by the time a vet can get to the farm call the incident will be over. Again, it depends on the obstruction. Horses can still breathe while choking so asphyxiation isn't a problem. He agreed that a water hose would be fine but it was his suggestion of a large animal syringe to control a smaller amounts of water and might be more acceptable to the horse. You don't want water getting into the lungs then you'll have a pneumonia problem within a few days.
This incident made it clear to me, once again, when you're a small time horse owner you'd better be prepared for any kind of emergency. You can't pack them up and take them to the ER. If you call a vet you may not get one for a very long time at least that's how it is in the area where I live. Oh, and this happened on a Saturday afternoon so fat chance getting one of our local vets. It just ain't gonna happen. On this occasion I was very thankful for the internet!
I realized I need to make an appointment to probably have Spirit's teeth floated because it's been quite some time. It's one of those things I put off because he has to be sedated and I really hate that but better to have healthy teeth than an hour or so of me being uncomfortable.
From now on the hay cubes are soaked for 30-45 minutes before putting them out. I don't want to take a chance of a choking episode like that again! I'm thinking about finding another kind of hay stretcher. There are many different products out there these days. I decided I don't necessarily want to be soaking the hay cubes every day if there are alternatives.
If interested in learning about dealing with a choking horse I found Dr. Brusie's short and informative article here at the following website: