When you care for more than two dozen horses it never hurts to be prepared for a veterinary emergency. Let's face it...horses are basically designed to self-destruct. But I learned that when the majority of those horses are over the age of 20 and declining in health, dealing with some emergencies means dealing with life and death situations. One of the scariest senior horse medical emergencies I've dealt with was choke.
During my time caring for the Girl Scout horses, I experienced two episodes of choke in two different horses. One of those was incredibly scary to deal with while the other ended up resolving before the veterinarian arrived. But in the end, both ended well and proved priceless educational experiences.
Choke #1--My first experience with a choking horse was when Cadence, a 25+-year-old Arabian gelding got his dinner (commercially manufactured pellets) lodged in his esophagus. He was waiting in the fenced area around the barn to go out to the pasture for the night while a few other workers and I prepared the other horses for the evening. We heard a scuffle from down the barn and upon looking to see what was going on, saw Cadence spinning, lying down, and getting back up repeatedly.
Our first thought was colic, so one coworker went to call the vet. I approached Cadence with another coworker to see if I could get a closer look at what was going on. Once we had him haltered, he stopped trying to lie down and stretched his neck out and down. Saliva drained out of his mouth and nostrils and his entire body contracted repeatedly as he tried to clear whatever was stuck in his throat. The noises he made while gagging were indescribable.
We did the best we could to keep him quiet, but we all grew agitated as Cadence continued drooling, gagging, and contracting. When the vet finally pulled in, she instructed us to slowly walk Cadence to our near-by isolation barn, which had a solitary area with easy water access--and was very easy clean. We'd all soon find out why that last part was so important.
Our veterinarian confirmed that Cadence was suffering a serious episode of choke. She passed a nasogastric tube as far as she could before repeatedly lavaging the obstruction with water. It took nearly an hour of repeated flushing before the entire blockage cleared and our old pal returned to normal. And by the end, all four of the humans in the barn--me, my coworker, the veterinarian, and our boss--were covered head to toe in wet, stinky, soggy concentrate that Cadence blew from his nose and mouth each time he coughed or sneezed. In the end, we all looked around at each other and laughed...I'm pretty sure that included Cadence, too!
Choke #2--A few months after Cadence's choke, we dealt with another episode with a horse named Cody--a Morgan gelding estimated to be in his early 30s and one of my personal favorites. Shortly after I gave him breakfast (commercially available senior feed) I heard him wheezing from a few stalls down the barn. My boss and I went to evaluate, and came to the conclusion that he, too, was choking.
Without leaving the stall, my boss called the veterinarian from her cell phone. I put my hand on Cody's esophagus to try to find the blockage (a skill the veterinarian had taught me during Cadence's choke). I found it, sitting right near the bottom of where I was able to feel of the esophagus.
My boss told the vet I'd located the blockage, and the vet asked if I could give her an estimate of the size. As I was feeling how large the obstruction was, it slipped loose and, presumably, disappeared into the stomach. Cody relaxed, my boss and I looked at each other in surprise, and she told the veterinarian what had happened.
Cody still got checked out by the veterinarian when she arrived, and he got a clean bill of health--aside from some aging teeth, which likely contributed to the choke.
The veterinarian advised that Cadence and Cody both consume soaked senior feed rather than their previous diets, and we were instructed to keep a close eye on them for any future episodes. Neither choked again.
Also, both geldings had their teeth looked at and worked on shortly after the incidents to ensure their mouths were in the best possible shape they could be. After that, the veterinarian recommended they have twice annual teeth checkups to ensure everything stayed in good shape.
I learned a lot from Cadence and Cody's chokes, but mainly I learned that I never wanted to deal with those situations again! Has your senior horse ever experienced a choke? How did you handle it? Do you have any advice for other horse owners about dealing with chokes? Share your experiences below!