Senior Horses and Choke Risk

Q: I have fed senior feeds to various horses for many years, but would like to know more about the possibility that they may cause choke in some horses. I was recently given a 19-year-old horse that I suspect may be a little hard to keep up to weight. His previous owner begged me to never feed him a particular brand of senior feed, soaked or not, because she said she has seen horses choke on it.

In fact, over the years I have had both a donkey and a 28-year-old Quarter Horse choke on equine senior feed. Currently, I feed a senior feed to a 25-year-old half-Paso Fino, who sometimes seems to be choking (hard to tell, since she also has recurrent airway obstruction), and a 35-year-old mule who seems to do fine. I don’t soak the feed. — Joy Miller Upton, Logan, Ohio

A: Senior feeds tend to have a lot of beet pulp in them, and beet pulp can expand with water (or saliva), which could result in a senior feed pellet expanding and getting stuck in the esophagus, resulting in choke. The biggest cause of choke, however, isn’t the feed ingredient, but how well the horse chews and salivates prior to swallowing. The horses you describe that have choked were all older horses, and because one of the biggest issues owners face when feeding older horses is major dentition changes, it is possible that these choke-prone horses simply had dental issues. Even an older horse that has had regular dental checks will still be losing some of his ability to chew because he has fewer teeth and dental surfaces for grinding.

So, perhaps senior feed (or beet pulp) isn’t the culprit for choke but, rather, senior horses (and their teeth) just have an increased risk. This could also explain why some horses are fine on senior feeds, while others have issues—it isn’t the feed but how the horse chews it. At any rate, if you are concerned about choke, make sure your horses have had a thorough dental exam. I also recommend soaking rations for older horses (whatever brand or stage, senior feed or not) prior to feeding, just to make it easier for them to chew. It also helps get more water into them.