If your horse looks like it’s throwing up, you probably have many questions and concerns. Horses that discharge mucus or food out of their nose may be in danger. I had so many questions the first time I saw a horse with a severe nasal discharge. New owners are often confused when they suddenly see food or slime coming out of their horse’s mouth or nose.
Do horses vomit? Horses are physically incapable of vomiting. They don’t have the means to force food back up into their throat from their stomach. However, they can regurgitate food or be blocked and unable to swallow their food. The food mixes with mucus in their esophagus, creating a slimy mass expelled through their breathing—hence, it usually comes out of their noses.
There are many reasons your horse may be discharging food, mucus, or saliva out of its nose or mouth. Let’s dive in so you can identify if the condition is life-threatening or common.
Horse Foaming Mouth Is Not Vomiting
Horses choke on food and mucus, which comes out through their nostrils. It is rarer to see food or mucus coming from their mouth. Usually, you will see a horse create mucus in response to something ridden on a bit, eating sweet food, or even having drunk water. As in the cover image, the horse is salivating in response to the bit. Salivating is not vomiting or choking, and it is pretty harmless.
Severe drooling from the mouth is dangerous to your horse when you are riding them with too much flexion or hyperflexion, cutting off circulation to their salivary glands, which can make them choke on their spit. If they have eaten a plant that can spread fungal infection, such as red clover, it may cause them to drool a lot. Excessive drooling causes what is known as the slobbers, where large amounts of mucus come out of your horse’s mouth.
Horses Are Unable to Throw Up
Horses are physically unable to vomit. Humans and dogs have shorter necks than horses, which is why we can easily vomit. Horses have a long neck, and the valve at the entrance to their stomach is very powerful, blocking the outflow of food from the stomach since horses will choke on fluid that comes up.
This powerful valve works like a non-return valve. Food goes in, but it can’t come back out. This means that if your horse appears to be throwing up, you will need to diagnose what’s going on accurately. It is often either choke or mucus regurgitation. Many people call choke and mucus regurgitation “throwing up,” even though horses aren’t throwing up. If horses have food coming out of their noses, it is serious.
Do Horses Die When They “Throw Up”? “Throwing up” will not cause death, but if your horse continues to choke, it may become completely blocked and suffer secondary infections. Since horses can’t correctly ingest food, they may get colic and die. In some cases, if there is no colic, the horse will lose weight rapidly since they are starving (no matter how much you feed them).
Being unable to vomit has serious implications for horses. People and other animals vomit when they have overeaten or if their stomach is upset. Since horses can’t vomit, they end up with colic. Colic may damage their stomach valve if a horse has overeaten food or consumed its food in a dry and unpalatable state.
A Choked “Throwing Up” Horse
If you see food coming back from your horse’s mouth or nose, your horse is choked. Choked is when food doesn’t correctly move down the esophagus, and food pushes back up the channel to exit through the nose. Choke is life-threatening since your horse can get the food into their airway, causing food-based pneumonia.
The slimy food-filled stuff coming out of your horse’s nose can be a signal that they can’t swallow more. The inability to swallow can result in your horse’s esophagus becoming blocked if it eats more. It can be a slow and painful death. You should seek medical attention for your horse as soon as you notice this happening. Don’t wait! Call your vet immediately if you see slime mixed with food coming out of your horse’s nose.
Identifying Horse Choke
Choke is different from an allergic reaction or a cold, where your horse may have a runny nose. Regurgitation doesn’t happen often. It is a continuous process once it starts. You will see slime and food coming out of your horse’s nose right after eating. Your horse may also suffer severe spasms in its neck, and you may notice its throat become hard. You will also see extreme distress in your horse.
Run your hand along the front of their throat. You will also detect a swollen area or harder section down the esophagus or trachea. This sign shows the horse is struggling to swallow food.
Some horses, especially a Friesian horse, can develop what is called a megaesophagus. Megaesophagus is a disorder that occurs when the muscles of the esophagus cannot propel food. It happens when a horse has consumed more food than its stomach can hold. The food backs up a little, forming a stretched pouch before the stomach opening. As a result, they can have recurring slime coming out of their noses. Usually, if this is the case, your horse will not show any signs of struggle, and the symptoms will pass in a few hours.
The photo above is an example of a Friesian horse that suffered from a megaesophagus. Signs this horse had included rubbing his nose on the door, trying to stimulate the throat area by windsucking on the door or hooking his jaw on the door, and pulling back to induce regurgitation. In this case, it wasn’t lethal, and with some changes in his diet, the owner was able to successfully treat the condition and break the bad habits the horse had formed.
Prevent Choking In Your Horse
Food-based choke is preventable. As a rule, I never feed large cubes to my horses as this can be problematic if they are food gobblers. Other ways in which you can prevent horses choking and becoming blocked include:
- Add water to their food to prevent dry food from sticking
- Feed smaller, frequent meals to avoid the stomach valve from malfunctioning
- Reduce sugar-based feed that contains molasses, which can stimulate the mucus membranes
- Avoid feeding after your horse has been running and is breathing irregularly. Doing this can cause them to chew ineffectively or can cause the throat muscles to work incorrectly
- Avoid feeding after exercise as your horse will be tired and sweaty, and the stomach muscles naturally contract during work. This means your horse’s stomach is naturally smaller after they have been ridden or worked
- Feed your horse at ground level; never feed above shoulder level as this can also cause food to push back into the esophagus
- Never force your horse to eat as a lack of appetite may be a sign they are choking, and eating more will make it worse
- Always check your sweet feed for any foreign particles or objects that your horse may accidentally find in it, as even large twigs or thorns can cause severe damage to the esophagus muscles
What to Do if Your Horse is Choking or Vomiting
If your horse is choking, and you are there to help them, you can do a few things to help them and a few things you should avoid doing.
If your horse is choking, take these steps:
- Restrict all remaining food
- Don’t squirt water down their throats. (This can cause pneumonia)
- Do not try to lubricate your horse’s throat
- Do not try to stop the mucus by raising your horse’s head higher.
- Do NOT make them run.
- Gently rub your horse’s throat in a downward motion WITHOUT applying extra pressure.
- Keep your horse calm and stop them from rolling if the choke gives over to colic.
- Call a vet if the choke persists for more than a few seconds
- If the choke stops, feed them heavily watered food for the next few days
- Monitor them carefully over the next few days, checking for respiratory distress and regular bowel movements
My Horse Choked, Now What?
If your horse has never choked before, you need to determine what may have brought this on. There is a range of factors that can trigger a sudden choking incident. Ruling these out will help you prevent choke recurring. Consider these possible contributing factors:
- Feeding your horse after strenuous work
- Offering your horse cold water in the dead of winter (this can contract the throat muscles, causing choke)
- Feeding your horse in a herd situation where they may have to defend their food, and therefore, eat faster than usual
- Feeding your horse large cubes if they are a feed gobbler and eat without chewing correctly, so if this was their feed type, change it to a meal food type.
- A horse that masticates poorly (due to old age or poor dental health)
Ensure you treat your horse carefully and as if they are still choking for a few days after the incident as their throat will likely be sensitive. Inflammation from choking can trigger a secondary choke incident. To avoid choking in the future, wet their food. Use a feeder that encourages slower eating. You can also use large river stones in their food to slow down their eating speed.
Soak the hay and use slow-feeding hay nets. Slower eating will prevent your horse from eating large chunks of food at a time. Avoid feeding larger meals.
Suppose your horse has choked in the past. In that case, work with your vet to develop a treatment plan that may include long-acting antibiotics, cortisone injections, and a course of anti-inflammatories. Some vets recommend ceasing all sweet feed to your horse.
Horse Regurgitating Mucus
Mucus is not something you can ignore. If your horse has a respiratory condition, it will suffer and struggle to breathe. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a common ailment. There are forms of treatment available, including keeping them on antibiotics and cortisone for a limited period while you track down the cause of the mucus and the obstructions.
Be sure to check for the blockage that’s causing the slime and food backing up. Some horses have bad habits like windsucking and cribbing. In the Friesian example above, the horse was forcing himself to regurgitate his food.
Although gross, it was a pleasurable activity for him to enjoy his food a second time around. The solution was simple: the owner mounted a thin strip of electrified tape on the door, which stopped the horse from pushing down on the door and forcing food up into his throat.
This example may sound like a drastic solution. Don’t try it without first consulting with your vet. All other reasons for choking need to be ruled out first. It may include your vet tubing your horse to ensure there is no obstruction in the throat. There are severe dangers to tubing, and it is not a procedure to take lightly. Unless your horse is unable to self-correct its choking problem, you may need to go this route.
Frequently Asked Questions
In addition to the information I’ve covered in this article, you may have a few more questions.
Can I ride my horse when it’s choked recently?
It is not advisable to strain your horse in any way when they are recovering from a choking incident. Being ridden, running, or jumping changes your horse’s breathing and strains their heart more when they have just had a case of choke. Keeping them calm and quiet in a pleasant paddock near your home where you can watch them is ideal.
Will my horse die from choke?
In some cases, when the choke causes impaction of the trachea and damages the stomach valve, your horse may die. That’s usually because of secondary infection, paralysis of the throat muscles, and their inability to graze and swallow effectively when their throat is damaged.
This horse had a choke incident, was tubed by a vet, and subsequently suffered paralysis of his throat muscles. It is a rare condition that some thoroughbred geldings are known to develop. He could not swallow food, which came out of his throat after each meal or while grazing.
During a scoping session, where the specialist vet passed a camera into the trachea and esophagus, it was ascertained the left side of his throat was unable to contract. He could not recover from this, and abscesses had already started forming along with his larynx as a result. The kindest choice was to put him to sleep.
While the prognosis for choke in horses is not always good, working with your vet and acting swiftly can help save your horse’s life. Call your vet immediately if you suspect your horse is choking and looks like they are trying to vomit.
If you notice your horse seems uncomfortable after eating or repeatedly coughing after you feed them, you need to pay attention to them. If the situation doesn’t improve soon, you need to call a vet immediately.
Be sure to ask your vet about the post choke care they recommend, and stick to it. If your vet says not to feed your horse any concentrated feeds for a week, don’t feed it! This is to ensure your horse has the best possible chance of recovery.
Take care to prevent the usual culprits that can trigger choke in your horse, and they will enjoy a long and healthy life with you.