Cribbing is a behavioral problem in which horses use their front teeth (specifically their upper incisors, normally used for cutting) to take hold of hard, immobile objects. These objects usually include fence rails, poles, and stall doors. It’s a troubling situation that has horse owners searching for ways to prevent cribbing and wondering why horses crib in the first place.
Signs of Cribbing
A cribbing horse will bite down on a hard object in their environment, and once their teeth are locked on, the horses stretch their necks, pull, and suck in air. This is done repetitively and creates a variety of noises, including grunts, groans, gulps, and gasps. The typical horse owner can identify cribbing by catching the horse “in the act,” but other signs of cribbing include bite marks on objects around the horse’s stall, as well as teeth that have been worn down.
Causes of Cribbing
So, why do horses crib? Research shows that this action has a psychological calming effect on horses as it releases endorphins, which trigger positive feelings throughout their bodies. Dopamine, a pleasure neurotransmitter, is also released through cribbing. This creates an association with cribbing and pleasure. These chemical rewards for cribbing are what stimulate the horse’s addiction to the activity.
Although a lot of research has been conducted on cribbing in horses, there is still a level of uncertainty about the exact cause of cribbing. However, most researchers and veterinary professionals agree that cribbing is impacted by two factors: genetics and environment.
Several studies show that the breed of the horse, and therefore a horse’s genetic makeup, has an impact on whether or not he will begin cribbing. The offspring of these breeds usually begin cribbing at a young age, many before they are one year old.
The other factor of cribbing is a horse’s environment. A horse’s environment can cause a number of problems, some of which include the following:
- Stress and anxiety
- Gastric ulcers
- Digestive problems
Stress, boredom, and anxiety in horses can all be the result of confinement in a stall with little time to roam and interact with other horses. This can cause an even more severe burden if your horse is naturally anxious. Because cribbing triggers a pleasure response from the brain, a horse uses cribbing to reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and boredom.
Gastric ulcers and digestive problems can result from a horse’s diet, specifically one that is high in starches. Foods with a lot of starch can cause irritation in your horse’s stomach. When a horse’s stomach inflates during cribbing, it temporarily prevents stomach acid from hitting the ulcers, thus alleviating some pain. It has yet to be proven, however, whether cribbing causes the ulcers, or the ulcers lead to cribbing.
Although it is widely considered a myth, some believe that cribbing is a learned behavior. This means that if a horse sees another horse cribbing, he might also begin to crib.
Dangers of Cribbing
Cribbing can not only cause physical damage to your horse’s stall, but it can also present the following dangers to your horse:
- Teeth problems
- Development of large throat muscles
- Weight loss and eating disorders, when your horse chooses to crib instead of eat
- Intra-abdominal pressure
Horses can also harm themselves by rubbing against the parts of their stall that have been damaged from cribbing.
Cribbing Treatment & Prevention
It is important to understand cribbing treatments and prevention techniques. Treatments for cribbing can either address the cause of the cribbing or attempt to address the symptomatic behavior through suppression.
Addressing the Symptom
As with most health challenges, it is highly preferable to address the cause rather than the symptom. That said, it is sometimes necessary to suppress the behavior if it becomes a safety or health issue. The most common method is to use a cribbing collar or strap. These devices are put around your horse’s neck and through muscle restriction, prevent your horse from cribbing. Note that this doesn’t work for all horses. Similarly, some horse owners use cribbing muzzles or rings. A more extreme and costly way to suppress cribbing is to have the horse undergo surgery to prevent it from flexing throat muscles while cribbing. Of course none of these methods would be typically considered until after addressing the potential cause, and only as a last resort.
Addressing the Cause
Although it is hard to address the genetic component of cribbing, you can help reduce the risk of cribbing when a horse is still young by slowing down the weaning process. This may help lessen the stress that occurs when weaning is abrupt. Moreover, this process should include a gradual introduction of the horse’s new environment and diet.
If you believe the cribbing is related to anxiety and boredom, the following treatments are advised:
- Allow your horse to socialize more with other horses
- Give your horse more freedom to roam and graze in pastures
- Keep hay in your horse’s stall at all times to provide defense against the gastric acid in your horse’s stomach
- Introduce supplements for horses that promote calm and well being
- Provide your horse with a high-fiber diet
- Spend more time with your horse
- Add a variety of toys to your horse’s stable to alleviate boredom
Because many digestive problems and ulcers are related to a horse’s diet, the most logical treatment method is to change what your horse eats. Grain, sweet feeds, and foods with a high starch content can cause irritation. Therefore, it is recommended that forage is used instead. The irritation is a known cause of ulcers, as well as additional anxiety.
Digestive health for horses can also be maintained with natural supplements, such as bee pollen for horses, as well as probiotics and antacids.
Although there are several answers to why horses crib, it can be challenging to find a course of action for your horse. Unlike many physical ailments, there is a good chance you won’t be able to cure cribbing. However, by identifying the cause and taking steps to address it, the frequency of the cribbing can be reduced.