Why Do Horses Crib?

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To start with let’s define what cribbing actually is. Cribbing is when a horse chews on various items. In many cases their corral panels. This behavior can be rather destructive and there are a number of questions that people have about it.

Why Horses Crib

To start with lets discuss why horses crib. Traditionally cribbing has been chalked up to a vice or bad habit in horses. New information indicates that a horse may crib in response to a digestive upset. Because cribbing actually produces an excess of saliva, this can help to alleviate the pain of things like ulcers and other digestive problems that may be present.

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If your horse is cribbing the first step you may want to take would be to investigate the reason why. Don’t just chalk it up to boredom and let it go. There could be some serious medial conditions as the underlying cause. With horses who are diagnosed with ulcers, the behavior often stops or is reduced when those ulcers are treated.

Cribbing can be caused by extreme boredom and is usually seen in horses who spend most of their time in a stall. As far back as 1888, researchers theorized that horses cribbed because of an upset stomach. Back then they would treat them with blocks of salt and chalk in their feed and add magnesium and ground oak bark on the feed.

Dr. Mills has investigated this theory more in depth. He has treated cribbing horses with antacids and found that it may significantly reduce the behavior. However, his team’s research is still ongoing. Another research team has said that they haven’t been able to determine whether cribbing causes any issues in the stomach or whether the behavior is caused by stomach issues.

Can Cribbing Be Harmful

Yes it can, Cribbing is a great way to cause a horse to colic (and tear up property), because of this any steps you can take to end this practice the better. This behavior can also cause a horse to wear their teeth down to nubs. This can make eating more difficult.

Other horses will crib rather than eat which can cause large amounts of weight loss. In some cases horses will build their neck muscles so much that it’s difficult for them to get their head turned properly when being ridden.

The practice can very much damage a barn or a wood stall and in many cases completely destroy it. One horse has torn down numerous feed buckets that were bolted to the wall of the stall and has even broken a wheelbarrow that was within reach. Dr Houpt states:

“They pull so hard, it’s like exerting 125 pounds of force every time they flex their necks.”

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Dr. Houpt has not found a direct relationship between the frequency of cribbing and the risk of colic, although she has lost one-third of the cribbing horses she has studied due to colic.

Is Cribbing a Learned Behavior in Horses

No it’s not. Horses do not start cribbing just because they may see other horses around them doing it. In cases where a large number of horses begin to crib at the same time, it can be caused by management practices that lead to some type of gastric distress. Some of the practices that can lead to cribbing are:

  • Not enough long-stemmed forage
  • Feeding large grain meals at a single time
  • No providing a diet that is balanced properly
  • Horses not having enough access to salt
  • Not enough time turned out to run

There is a theory that there is a genetic component to cribbing. Some theories believe that if a mare or sire is a cribber then their offspring will have an increased chance of cribbing even if it has never seen another horse doing it. Personally this leads me to believe that cribbing may have a hereditary component that could be due to another issue.

I would love to see this angle researched more in depth to see if it’s actually the case. Current research shows that horses start cribbing at weaning or when there is a chance in their diet. Researchers are still unsure what role sweet feed plays into triggering cribbing. Although they have seen that feeding straight oats, seems to decrease the frequency of cribbing.

Another Vet believes that half of all the horses that crib begin the habit within 20 weeks of age (the typical weaning period). It’s hard to pinpoint an exact cause because there are so many variables in play such as feed types, change in feeding routine, change in environment, and stress. The practice has not been reported in wild horses, increasing the idea that humans’ management of horses may be to blame for the behavior.

Researchers also believe that anxiousness and stress could be a predisposition for cribbing. They have found that the behavior is least often found in cold-blooded horses like ponies and draft breeds which do tend to be less worrisome. However, there is some disagreement among researchers over whether a horse receives any physical or mental benefit from cribbing.

Can I Stop My Horse From Cribbing?

Actually, sometimes you can. You see, as a horse bites down on the wood and inhales, endorphins are released that can give the horse a kind of “high”. That is why it can be hard to stop once it has begun but by treating the underlying cause you can get it to stop. Once the underlying cause is found and addressed you can start to reduce the practice. There are some steps that you can take that will also help to reduce the habit. These things are:

  • Plenty of long-stemmed forage throughout the day
  • Enough turn out time with the chance to play and interact with other horses
  • Placing toys in the stalls to reduce boredom
  • Ensuring that your horse is getting a balanced diet
  • Covering wooden surfaces with anti-chew paint
  • Ensuring that the horse has plenty of access to loose white salt
  • Feeding grain based meals in small amounts several times per day rather than all at once

It can be a challenge to treat a cribbing horse, but remember that the first step is to figure out why the behavior began in the first place. There is a chance that your horse cribbing could be him telling you that he’s in pain and needs help.

Dr. Houpt says:

“The only horses I could cure were the horses that had just started, that was by letting the horses out of their stalls and putting them back on pasture. Once it has been going on, it’s very hard to stop even if you make the environment perfect, although the rate at which horses become cribbers will be less when they’re on pasture. If you feed them nothing but hay and oats, they will crib at the lowest rate.”

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There are also a number of options for enriching the environment of a cribbing horse and managing his behavior:

  • Forage Horses kept on pasture and those that free feed may crib less
  • Antacids – If cribbing actually is related to ulcers, providing an antacid in a horse’s diet could be helpful
  • Cribbing Collars – Dr. Houpt says that these popular neck collars do seem to work but “you have to make it so tight that often the horse develops lesions.” Fitted around the horse’s jowl at the throatlatch, a cribbing collar doesn’t affect a horses breathing, eating, or drinking when he isn’t attempting to crib. However, when the horse does try and crib, the collar applies pressure to the throatlatch so he can’t arch his neck and suck air.
  • Shock Collars – Just don’t, they are all viewed as cruel and there is debate about whether they are even effective at all.
  • Cribbing Muzzles – Muzzles do work, but horses will try their hardest to remove them. A metal and nylon muzzle clips to the horses halter and allows the horse to eat and drink, but the horse can’t get his mouth open to crib. This also leads to other potential dangers of leaving a horse in a stall with a halter on.
  • Premises Paint – Several wood coatings are produced with the purpose of preventing cribbing. Some people swear by using hot sauce but they may not always do the job. One researcher found that pepper sauce made absolutely no difference.

There are a load more things that are supposed to discourage a horse from cribbing but we won’t go over those.

Right now there are a lot of researchers world-wide trying to figure out exactly what causes cribbing. Dr. Houpt says:

“I’m sure that within the next three to five years, we’re going to find the gene for cribbing.”

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So far medications have not been found to be a successful method for control. However, by finding the gene responsible for cribbing, the proper protocol should be more clear.

“I think there are some exciting developments, and with the right investment, we could gain much greater insight,”

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says Dr. mills.

“If it was a physical disease that was affecting 5% of the population, you could be sure people would see the welfare significance. But because it is thought of as an endemic problem of the horse rather than a welfare problem, there is very little funding. And what research has been done has largely been done by self-funding, dedicated individuals.”

Are There other Ideas on the Cause of Cribbing?

Actually there are. Some scientists believe that Genetics, diet, personality and weaning methods seem to play strong roles in whether a horse will crib or not. They also believe that is is not a learned behavior from other horses. And, as I previously stated, it can lead to an increased risk of colic. Current research is underway to try and understand more about this behavior and why a horse does it. However, Dr. Houpt suggests that horses may not actually crib because of the endorphins; but that the endorphins are already present from another source such as feed and that may be a cause for the action.

Ultimately, when raising a horse from birth, owners should pay extra close attention to the environment and management surrounding the foal’s weaning experience to reduce the likelihood that such stereotypical behaviors as cribbing because an issue.

Dr. Katherine Houpt is a professor of behavioral medicine at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Daniel Mills is a well-known equine behaviorist who is researching stereotypes at the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in the United Kingdom.

I hope this article was a big help to you. If it was I would be very appreciative if you would leave a comment below and share it on your favorite social media pages.

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