"Does he crib?” It’s as common as asking what color a horse is when you are looking to purchase one. Most people try to avoid bringing a new cribber into their barns. Those who own a horse that cribs are usually frustrated at the habit and are trying to stop it.

What exactly is cribbing?

Cribbing is a stereotypy, that is, a behavior that is repetitive and compulsive. The behavior includes the horse grabbing onto something solid (like a fence board, bucket, or door) with his top incisors, arches his neck, and sucks in air. An audible gulping or belching can usually be heard. Some horse can crib without their teeth on anything. This sucking in of air causes a kind of “head rush” for the horse. The head rush is pleasurable. Cribbing should not be confused with wood chewing. Although a cribber may damage the surface he cribs on due to scraping his teeth over it repetitively, he is not biting and chewing wood.

So why do horses crib?

Animal welfare researchers believe that this stereotypy may serve a purpose in relieving stress or physical discomfort. Some reasons commonly attributed to cribbing include:

  • Boredom
  • Stress
  • Nervousness
  • Excessive energy
  • Nutritional deficiencies

Researchers are still divided on whether or not a horse that cribs can teach other horses to crib. Dr. Sue McDonnell, from the University of Pennsylvania, has studied cribbers for many years. It is her experience that it is very rare for a cribber to teach other horses the habit. Rather, horses in the same vicinity that all share the cribbing habit, are most likely exposed to the same stressors. Since horses have limited ways in which to show their stress, they each choose to crib. They have chosen this independently of one another, not learned from one another.

Is cribbing unhealthy?

Cribbing can have undesirable health effects on your horse. Many horses will wear down their top incisors, sometimes right to the gum line. This will make prehending food difficult for the horse. It can also result in a malocclusion of the teeth of the upper and lower jaws. Special attention should be paid to the teeth of a cribber to prevent any problems associated with tooth wear.

Studies show that there is also a higher association with colic in horses that crib. No certain type or severity of colic, but just an increased risk. It was once thought that cribbers got more gas colic, but studies have not found that to be true.

Some horses can become so addicted to the rush of cribbing that they will forsake eating for it. This can result in a weight loss, malnutrition, and poor performance.

So how do I prevent cribbing?

The best way to help prevent a horse from starting to crib is to try to eliminate or at least lessen the stress and boredom in his life. Allow your horse as much pasture time as possible in your given situation. Horses are social animals, so contact with other horses will help decrease stress. A goat or chicken can provide social interaction for some when other horses are just not available. Regular exercise to eliminate excessive energy and to provide stimulation is also important.

Changing your horses’ diet can be helpful. It is recommended to decrease or eliminate grain from a cribber’s diet. Providing roughage throughout the day is important. Eliminating grain is hard for those horses that are underweight, but it may relieve the behavior. Researchers in the United Kingdom are working with special diets for cribbers that contain antacids, meant to reduce cribbing in established cribbers.

Another way to reduce cribbing is to make the surfaces your horse cribs-on less desirable. Cover tops of door with rounded metal edges or paint boards and doors with anti-chew spray or cayenne pepper.

What about cribbing collars?

Cribbing collars can be an effective means of controlling cribbing in some horses. It is often necessary to try several different styles to get one that works for your horse. And it is often necessary for the collar to be very tight. Monitor your horse for any signs of abrasions from the collar as well as any difficulties breathing. There have been some instances of horses that pass out from wearing a very tight cribbing collar. However, these cases are rare and controlling the behavior is very important.

Other control methods such as shock collars, acupuncture, and surgery are available. None of these methods have been found to be particularly effective.

Cribbing can never be cured, but with some modifications to your horse’s lifestyle, it can be managed.

Registered 2011 by Equestrian Collections
Author: Sallie S. Hyman, VMD, DACVIM, CVA

Information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for evaluation by an equine professional. In particular, all horse owners should seek advice and treatment from a licensed veterinarian, such as TEVA, for their horses' medical care.

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