Public warned not to feed horses after two require emergency veterinary treatment for choking at Twyford Horsemanship Centre in Bishop's Stortford
The owner of an equestrian centre on the outskirts of Bishop's Stortford is pleading with walkers not to feed horses after two of her animals needed emergency veterinary treatment for choking.
Zoe Williams, who runs Twyford Horsemanship Centre in Pig Lane, had to call out vets twice on Saturday afternoon after the usually fit and healthy horses became ill within two hours of each other.
Both had been grazing in separate fields, one bordered by a public footpath where notices are placed asking people to refrain from feeding them.
Choking and foaming at the nose and mouth, each was treated with a muscle relaxant, which fortunately cleared the blockages. But it is not always a successful treatment.
Zoe warned that the consequences of giving what they think is harmless food could in fact prove fatal for some horses, who might be on controlled diets or susceptible to choking.
She said incidents of horses and ponies becoming seriously ill or even dying as a result of being fed picnic leftovers – such as bread crusts or, in one case, peanuts in their shells – had been widely reported during the coronavirus pandemic as more people took to the countryside for exercise. The problem has resulted in equestrian organisations such as the British Horse Society (BHS) campaigning to raise awareness.
"It's probably well-meaning people who feed them, but even carrots can be deadly to some horses so I really want to spread awareness in the local area that unless the owner has asked you to, don't feed horses," said Zoe, 43.
"On Saturday afternoon, two of the horses at our stables suffered the medical condition called choke, which can be caused by having something inappropriate in their diet.
"Both vets who came out said that this was almost certainly what had caused the issues because both horses had no previous health conditions and no access to anything else that could have caused them to choke.
"Neither has had the vet for anything apart from routine vaccinations – they've never been sick or sorry, so it was quite a scare. Fortunately they've both made full recoveries."
Zoe and her partner Jamie Evans, 30, took over the livery yard business two years ago, creating the horsemanship centre where they train young horses and help those with challenging behavioural issues, offer lessons to horse and rider and continue to rent out field and stable space to private owners. They have 25 horses on site, ranging from miniature Shetlands up to a large, retired Clydesdale.
It was Jamie's 10-year-old, 15hh Arab gelding, Puff, whom they had acquired as a youngster, who became ill shortly after a livery horse at the yard.
"We got him in from the field and straight away he started choking," said Zoe. "Puff is Jamie's demo horse who he has travelled all over the country with performing horseback archery, fire breathing and jousting to the public. We've had him since he was a baby."
One of their horse-owning clients, who wished to remain anonymous, had seen her own 14-year-old mare looking unwell in the paddock not long after being turned out around lunchtime.
"We got her in and realised she was choking with horrible liquid coming from her nose and mouth," said Zoe.
"There's not a lot in terms of first aid you can do in choking cases. You can massage their throat a bit, but some horses will have very mild symptoms while in others it can prove fatal. They were given a muscle relaxant and were looking brighter within a couple of hours, but it was so scary."
Zoe said that they had seen a significant increase in the numbers of people using footpaths through the property since lockdown measures were first introduced last spring.
"We have two footpaths that run through our field areas and people also wander off of the footpaths. Last year we put up signs explaining why you should not approach, touch or feed the horses because we were starting to see an increase in people coming through and wandering off the paths.
"It's people just out for their daily dose of fresh air and exercise, but I've had to speak to those who I've seen trying to feed the horses."
Zoe said they would be replacing their signs with a simpler message in a bid to deter people from offering food across the fence.
"It's become quite an issue for us more recently – we used to get one or two walkers through, now we can get up to 100 people a day.
"We have three horses in our yard that even if they were fed a carrot it could kill them, so I really want to raise awareness of this. One suffers badly from choke while we have two elderly horses with no teeth left. You wouldn't be able to tell that unless you knew the horse itself, but it could easily choke.
"We just want to help inform people better – we know it's not malicious, it's just that it's quite a worry for us."
The BHS issued a warning to the public not to feed any horses they encounter whilst out and about.
Alan Hiscox, director of welfare, said: "The BHS is urging members of the public not to feed horses in fields as this can cause serious illness and be potentially life-threatening.
"We believe many people act with no malicious intent and are simply unaware of the risks that certain foods or grass cuttings can pose to horses.
"We encourage horse owners to download signs the BHS has produced warning the public not to feed their horse. The greater the awareness of the issue, the more likely people are to change their behaviour in the future."
The BHS has offered the following advice to the public, stating that although feeding horses may seem harmless, it is important not to due to the following reasons:
- Any type of food, grass cuttings or any other plants can cause horses to become extremely unwell or even kill them.
- Fighting between horses could break out and cause an injury.
- Horses may mistake your fingers for food and accidentally nip them.