It’s feeding time and you go through the usual ritual of pouring a bucket of pellets or grain into your mare’s feeder. She takes a few hurried mouthfuls and then she suddenly stops eating. She begins to look anxious, as if surprised or in pain, though you can’t see any visible signs of injury. Within a few moments she forcibly coughs several times, and then assumes an odd stance: her neck is extended and her head is lowered. Occasionally she twists her jaw and opens her mouth. When saliva and bits of food begin to dribble out your mare’s mouth and nostrils, you rush for the phone to call your vet. What’s wrong with your horse? Is something stuck in her throat?

The short answers are that your mare is suffering from a bout of choke, and yes, something is stuck in her throat. It’s her hastily eaten food.

Horses that eat their meals too quickly, sometimes referred to as “bolting their feed” are prone to choke. But it can also occur when a horse is fed a large treat, such as a whole apple or a thick, tough carrot. The object lodges in the esophagus. At first the horse tries to dislodge the trapped food. When that fails, they become almost complacent, even as saliva and fragments of food-prevented from going down the esophagus-travel out the nose and mouth.

Unless the case of choke resolves on its own within a couple of minutes, which can happen, you should always call your vet. Your vet will probably sedate your horse and inject some muscle relaxants. These will help soothe your horse and quell any spasms in the esophagus. By slipping a nasogastric tube into your horse’s nostril and then into the top of the esophagus, your vet can introduce fluids that can soften the bolus of food and help it slip free.

Cases of choke generally resolve rather quickly, especially with veterinary assistance. Though it looks startling when it happens, and it’s definitely unpleasant for the poor horse, choke is not a life-or-death emergency. Fortunately, horses can continue to breathe even when their esophagus is blocked. The worst complication of choke is pneumonia, which can occur if the horse aspirates any of the material into its lungs. That’s why it’s best if you simply allow your horse to stand quietly until the food passes on its way or the vet arrives.

To prevent any future instances of choke, break treats into smaller bites. And if your horse is a notoriously fast eater who bolts pellets or grain, try an old horseman’s trick. Place a large, clean rock in the bottom of your horse’s feeder. Then your horse will have to nuzzle around the rock to find each tidbit, which slows down the eating process. You can also simply switch from pellets to hay served in flakes. Just a few alterations in your horse’s dinner routine may cease the choking.