A common concern that arises when using a dry, pelleted food reinforcer is that the horse will choke. When we train our horses with positive reinforcement, we will usually use food rewards such as hay pellets or other dry feeds. These are great because they are palatable, low in sugar, and not too messy. However, horses that are new to positive reinforcement and clicker training can sometimes run the risk of choking on them if we aren’t proactive in introducing our food rewards in a way that is safe.
Choke, while commonly believed to be an issue caused by dry or un-soaked feed, is actually a behavioral issue. In the beginning, your horse is going to be more likely to bolt their food down, whether this is a result of food anxiety, hunger, or other factors.
“Choke is a behavior problem, not a problem with the physical form of feed. Feed or hay do not cause choke; horses that eat too fast cause choke. If horses become overly hungry due to long periods with nothing to eat or feel threatened in a group feeding situation, they tend to become aggressive while eating and bolt their feed. Horses can choke on any food source, whether it is grass, hay, grain, or even treats. If a horse does not take the time to chew his feed properly, he will choke.” - Seminole Feed, “Horse Feeding Myths and Misconceptions: Fact vs. Fiction”
But don’t fear - this isn’t a common occurrence, and there are a few easy steps to take to help prevent this from happening.
The Mechanics of Food Delivery
When beginning with clicker training, the ability for the human to give food rewards, and for the horse to receive them is a foundational skill. While it may seem easy, this skill does take a little bit of practice for both the human and their horse.
The horse must learn to accept the food with their lips and not their teeth, to wait until the food is brought to his mouth, and to chew and swallow the food. The human, on the other hand, must ensure that their food delivery is neither rushed nor sloppy, as such can perpetuate a horse’s food anxiety and make them more likely to bolt down their food.
The mechanics and consistency of food delivery are particularly important in the early stages as our horses learn to accept their reinforcers. Frequent Water Breaks As your horse chews, they produce saliva to help break down their food but with extended periods of chewing dry food this saliva alone is not enough. Allowing them frequent water breaks in between short training sessions is important for them to moisten their mouths and hydrate.
I recommend offering water breaks at least every five minutes in the beginning.
Feeding Appropriate Size and Quantity
Another important factor to consider is the size and quantity of the pellets you are feeding. When starting out with clicker training, ensure that the pellets are smaller in size, breaking them into pieces if necessary, as this will help prevent your choke. Likewise, feed small amounts of pellets at a time. If you are working at a high rate of reinforcement, as you likely will be when first starting out, one or two small pellets at a time is enough. It can be tough to resist the temptation to give your horse a large handful of pellets when they look at you with their cute face, but one or two will do just fine.
As your horse learns how to accept food reinforcers, you can increase the size of your pellets, while still keeping in mind to give your horse frequent water breaks as needed. Adding Moisture Most everyone knows this trick: adding water to your horse’s feed so that they don’t choke. While this may make your training sessions a bit messier, it is still an effective method. Lining your treat pouch with a plastic bag or purchasing a silicone pouch can make this slightly less messy. Over time, as your horse adjusts, you can decrease the amount of water you add to the pellets until you can feed the pellets dry. Access to Forage If your horse goes for extended periods without access to forage, they will be hungry. Hunger can perpetuate food anxiety and cause a horse to bolt down their food, making them more likely to choke. This can be remedied by planning your training sessions around times when your horse has recently had a meal, providing your horse with a flake of hay before a session, or ideally, providing your horse with round the clock forage. Address Health Concerns Dental issues can also put your horse at a higher risk for choke. Sharp edges, cracked molars, or other dental issues can make chewing food difficult or painful. Poor dental health can also be the cause of a myriad of other issues, hence the importance of yearly dental checks. At the end of the day, an underlying pain can cause issues that all the training in the world can’t fix.
“If a horse is uncomfortable when chewing because his teeth need to be floated (filed smooth), he will chew less and therefore may not produce enough saliva to moisten his food. Teeth should be checked once or twice a year. Minor corrections can increase comfort and encourage the horse to chew grain more thoroughly.” - Kentucky Equine Research, “Choking Horses: Prevention and Treatment”
Many of these procedures will be temporary as you and your horse develop your clicker training skills. As you learn and improve together, keep these ideas in the back of your mind for the safety of you and your horse.
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