I quickly drove to the farm where poor March waited miserably in the barn
aisle. His heart rate was 80—double the normal rate, and his gum color was an
alarming murky red. He was panting, his temperature was 103, and I could hear
no gut sounds. March was in trouble.
The nasal discharge was there, but it was mainly wet, so I sedated him lightly
and performed a rectal exam. Aside from an empty gut, there wasn’t much out
of the ordinary. An odorless pool of liquid had collected under his low hanging
head, and I lubed up the stomach tube and carefully threaded it up his nostril
and down into his esophagus. It passed easily until it reached the thorax, where
the esophagus passes over the heart, then went no further. I’d found the problem, but what was causing it?
Gently I lavaged warm water into the esophagus and let it flow back out and
little by little. Tan chunks of some sort of material washed out. Finally the tube
passed into March’s stomach, and I gave him a good dose of electrolytes and
warm water and a shot for pain.
Linnea and I studied the mess on the ground and suddenly we knew what
it was. Wood shavings from March’s bedding! She shook her head in astonishment, then scolded her horse while hugging him gratefully. But we weren’t out
of the woods yet.
With such a coarse impaction, I was worried about damage to the esophagus.
Endoscopy was not in the budget, nor was hospitalization, so I did what I could
and promised to see him early the next morning.
But he was worse when I arrived. His gums were dark red, his heart rate still
80, his temperature had climbed to 103.5 and he was shivering. He hadn’t
touched his soft mash, and there was no manure in the stall.
I was now certain that his esophagus was ruptured, and in desperation I
started some heavy antibiotics, adding in a new oral product that I hoped
would soothe the damaged tissue, and I repeated the pain medicine. I called
Linnea and let her know I’d be back to see him at lunch time.
I pulled up to the barn a little after noon and sat in my truck for a moment,
dreading what I was going to find when I walked in. March had been such a big
part of my practice, and I was going to miss his gentle presence.
I turned on the barn lights and strained to see March’s dark head in the row
of stalls. As my eyes adjusted to the lights, I could see him standing quietly.
His mash bucket was empty and there was a fresh, soft pile of manure on the
Incredulously, I took his vitals and all were normal. His gum color was a
healthy pink, and his gut sounds rumbled happily. He nosed my jacket while I
called Linnea in a daze, and she cried with joy.
He stayed on the medicines for 10 days and remained happy and comfortable. I kept a sharp eye on his temperature and other vitals but they remained
stable. Finally, he went back to his normal routine except for one major change:
March is now bedded on straw.
COURTNEY S. DIEHL, DVM, has been an equine veterinarian since 2000. She resides in
Steamboat Springs, Colo., where she is in private practice. Her first book, Horse Vet,
Chronicles of a Mobile Veterinarian, was published in 2014. She is currently at work on her
Linnea, his owner would wet his
senior feed a little so that it would
not stick in his esophagus, the tube
that connects the throat to the
stomach. When a horse chokes on
feed, he can still breathe, but due
to the impaction in the esophagus, cannot drink or eat until it is
Although many chokes will clear
on their own, a percentage need
medical intervention. In severe
cases the esophagus can rupture,
which is usually fatal due to
bacteria-laden fluids seeping into
A sure sign of choke is green,
feed-smelling fluid bubbling from
the horse’s nostrils and signs of
discomfort, like pawing, laying down,
head-shaking and depression.
March had choked several times
in the past, and I had relieved the
blockage by passing a stomach tube
and gently flushing clean, warm water
down to the feed mass until it broke
free. I always sedated the horses heavily so that their heads would hang
low because I did not want them
aspirating on the fluids that were
flowing from their nose as I worked
to break down the impaction.
Wetting the feed had solved
the problem with March, so when
Linnea called one night, worried
because March was not eating and
seemed ill, choke was not on her
mind. But what she was describing
over the phone sure sounded like it
March was depressed, refusing
food and there was a wet discharge
from both nostrils. Linnea insisted
that he’d only had wet senior feed
and his usual hay, and since there
was no chewed hay in the discharge, what could he possibly be
choking on? He’d been normal in