Updated: Nov 10, 2021
As I walked out to the pasture this morning, rubbing tiny donkey heads good morning, listening to the birds chirping and enjoying the sun coming up at 6am, I continued my rounds to the pasture and within 15 seconds noticed my mare Tuesday, wasn’t “right.” Another 90 seconds of observation from 50 feet away, I determined she likely had a mild case of choke.
I approached her and continued my assessment, resp rate - normal, looking for nasal discharge – absent, any apparent distress – nada, palpation for mass – well maybe there’s something but maybe there’s not, she has an old injury with two very large hematomas on the right side of her esophagus so… I’m not sure, but she’s still not normal. Standing away from the bale, constantly licking and chewing – this is not a licking and chewing or away from the bale type of mare (LOL sorry Tuesday!), repetitive big big yawns (rare for her at this point in the morning and where she was standing), oh and one dry cough!
If I had not known the warning signs of mild choke, my morning drive by could have made my situation a lot worse later, and a lot more uncomfortable for my horse as she continued to be in silent distress.
Fun fact: I have never in my life seen a real horse experiencing choke. But my skills and experience in equine first aid, combined with a dedicated knowledge of what is normal for my horse’s individual personalities, and how they act at different times of the day, allowed me to acknowledge something at infancy stage that otherwise a morning drive by the pasture seeing a horse lick and chew and yawn, made me stop instead of saying “ohhh Tusey are you tired – what a cute girl, have a good day!”
Fun Fact #2 – you can “learn” most everything in what we teach in first aid, on google. I’m not going to blow smoke and mirrors here and “hide” what the warning signs of choke are and tell you to come to class.
Some signs of choke:
- Not eating/drinking
- Stretching forward and down of the neck
- Tight/guarded muscles around the head and neck
- Licking and chewing
- Dry cough
- And lastly – when things are getting worse - green nasal discharge (grass/hay coming out the nostrils because they can’t swallow the bolus of food stuck in their throat)
Fun Fact #3 - Horses CANNOT vomit. The impaction/bolus MUST go down the throat.
Most people notice choke after that last point has been present for an extended period of time (days in some cases I’ve heard), and the horse is now way far off from the herd, hasn’t ate or drank in way too long, is dehydrated (which will complicate recovery) and is oozing green snot from their nose).
Now, I’m sorry – but I feel we have a responsibility to our animals to be able to identify an emergency like choke before it gets to that stage. Not only for the animal welfare, but this makes our veterinarian's job a lot harder too, and our expectations of them unfairly rise as we bring them in to a more detrimental situation, that could have been prevented by us giving them the opportunity for earlier intervention.
To give us owners a break – we don’t know what we don’t know. But we have the power (and responsibility) to learn. And when we know better, we can do better.
This is also why I advocate highly for in person training. Yes, you can google normal respiration rates, how to clean a wound, how to splint, take a temperature and heart rate – but the power of application is lost over a computer screen. Coming together as a group and fumbling with your stethoscope, trying 10 times and hearing the heart beat once, getting advice, a helping hand placement, wrapping a 4 layer bandage by yourself but under guidance of tips and tricks – flip the roll, hold your hand here, hearing real life stories from others, even knowing how to use everything in your equine first aid kit (do you have a first aid kit? In your barn? House? Truck?) – and then you go home, and can practice correctly – utilize observation, get used to subconsciously logging the last time you saw your horse pass stool - even in the emergency moment you are worried about her bleeding leg, so when you need the vets out you can give them better information.
Adult learners are experiential learners, we do not learn as well through a textbook and google screen. ESPECIALLY when it comes to inserting an emergency response, the scenarios we play out in classes are invaluable.
Case in point – I have had my Advanced Equine First Aid Instructor training for two years, and am extremely comfortable in my role responding to an equine emergency. This past weekend, I took my Rural & Wilderness First Aid certification for humans. I had an advantage on some in the group who had never taken even basic first aid before, but even with that – after 4 hours in a classroom talking about humans, plus transferring my years experience in first aid response to horsess - when we ran a scenario of a human who I had come across who was unconscious and unresponsive – my brain went blank. And this wasn’t even a real emergency.
But through repetition of scenes and scenarios, playing the patient and the responder, things got more comfortable. My transferable knowledge of patient assessment, equine first aid and supplies, comfortable calmness started flying back in to my brain as I started to make the most bad ass splints out of sticks, sleeping rolls, slings out of sweatshirts and more.
I could have googled all of that stuff too… but in an emergency – horse or human – I don’t want to be googling how to wrap a tube sling when a boarder is laying in the corral with a dislocated shoulder, or worse. Now I can rely on practiced, done wrong, tried again, light bulb moment, adaptive equipment in the event I don’t have a triangle bandage in my back pocket, and memory – to get me through emergencies. And google can’t teach you that.
Talk to your vet about first aid. If they have the time, get them to teach you. Take a class from one of my qualified colleagues. I don’t care where you learn, but you should learn. First aid isn’t about replacing medical care, it is about understanding how to provide bystander intervention in the witnessing or first on scene of an emergency, with the goal of assessment, appropriate level intervention, gathering information to pass to the professionals, and making the patient comfortable. If your vet thinks you don’t need this, I’d love to talk to them and learn more about why.
When you combine the remoteness we live in on farms – and we are 60-90 minutes (or more) away from a field service medic coming to the rescue – and you don’t know how to stop an arterial bleed immediately… your horse (or human) isn’t going to make it.
I am SO glad I took my Remote and Wilderness First Aid for humans this weekend too. I now know how many items from my equine first aid kit are transferable, I’ve been given the opportunity to screw up using them on a person who wasn’t actually hurt so I could improve my technique, and as the whole point of this blog is, I highly recommend anyone who owns horses or lives on an acreage – to take both your wilderness and equine first aid training. Back 40 Wilderness First aid is AWESOME, and I am offering EFA on the farm for one short day of your life – on April 20. Anyone who registers and mentions BLOG in their comments – will be entered to win back 50% of their registration fees.
PS: Back to the beginning of this blog – my horse is at the moment comfortable and at this point I am confident in the decision that I don’t have to call the vet – yet. That doesn’t mean I won’t, but she has turned around and shown me positive signs and I am confident in the interventions I applied to her this morning and feel very lucky of my knowledge to catch it so quickly.