Carol had just found her dream horse—lots of show ribbons, perfect conformation, and a sweet disposition. There was just one problem: the horse was a cribber. Her trainer and friends all gave her the same advice: Don't go there.
What is Cribbing?
Cribbing (also called windsucking) is a behavior in which the horse grabs a solid object (the stall door or fence rail) with its front teeth, then arches his neck, pulls against the object, and sucks in air. This is what it looks like.
What Effect Does Cribbing Have on Horses?
Cribbing seems to reduce pain and stress, as evidenced by changes in heart rate and stress hormones. Specifically, cribbing
What Causes Cribbing?
The answer seems to be that two factors must be present: A genetic predisposition to cribbing AND certain environmental triggers.
Contrary to common wisdom, horses don't learn to crib simply by watching other horses do it. There is definitely a genetic component: A study involving 396 horses in Finland estimated the heritability of cribbing to be 0.68 (on a range of 0 to 1.0), which means that cribbing is likely to be passed onto offspring (Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 156 , pp. 37 – 43).
A Swiss study found that, compared to other breeds, Thoroughbreds were twice as likely to crib and warmbloods were three time more likely (Applied Animal Behaviour Science, vol. 82, pp. 297–311). An American study found that Thoroughbreds were 3 times more likely to crib than Quarter Horses and 5 times more likely than Arabians (Crib-biting in US horses: breed predispositions and owner perceptions of aetiology. Equine Veterinary Journal, vol. 41, pp. 455–458)
Cribbing is not seen in wild, free-ranging horses, which suggests that the way domesticated horses are kept and cared for may cause the behavior (Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, vol. 33, 739-745).
Horses that have more grain in their diet are at greater risk for cribbing than those whose diet contains mostly hay. In one carefully controlled study, five cribbing horses and six control horses were fed grain, sweetened grain or alfalfa pelleted hay. When the horses were fed grain or sweet feed, there was a significant increase in the cribbing frequency among the cribbers, but alfalfa pellets left the level of cribbing unchanged. (Applied Animal Behaviour Science, vol 41, pp.147-153). Another study found that feeding sweet feed to young horses immediately after weaning was associated with a four-fold increase in the likelihood of cribbing (Equine Veterinary Journal vol. 34, pp 572-579).
Ulcers and other gastrointestinal pain can cause horses to crib as well Veterinary Record 2002;151:658-662.
Treatments for Cribbing
1. Make hay and pasture time a priority.
Research has repeatedly shown that the best ways to prevent cribbing is make forage (hay or pasture) the mainstay of a horse's diet, and to allow daily freedom of movement (Equine Veterinary Journal, vol. 35, pp. 158–63). This type of horse keeping not only reduces the risk of cribbing, it also yield in calmer behavior (Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice, vol. 25, pp. 167–81).
2. Have your horse checked for ulcers
Cribbing horses are more likely to suffer from gut pain, particularly ulcers. In fact, they may be cribbing to dull the pain. If this is the cause of a horse's cribbing behavior, treatment with antacids and other ulcer remedies can reduce the cribbing behavior. In one study, nineteen foals that had recently started to crib and 16 non-cribbing foals were randomly assigned an antacid diet for 14 weeks. Their stomachs were scoped (examined endoscopically) before and after the study. At the start of the trial, the stomachs of the cribbers were found to be significantly more ulcerated and inflamed than the stomachs of the normal foals. The antacid diet resulted in a significant improvement in the condition of the horses' stomachs and a reduction of cribbing behavior (Veterinary Record, vol. 151, pp. 658-662)
3. Cribbing collars
Cribbing collars are devices that prevent the horse from arching and swelling his neck to suck in air. They do this by positioning a piece of steel under the horse’s neck, which makes it uncomfortable to flex the neck. They must be carefully fitted and fastened quite tightly. This kind of cribbing collar has been found to be effective in preventing cribbing in most horses (McGreevy and Nicol, 1998b), but it requires leaving the collar on all the time, which risks damage to the cartilage in the horse's throat. If the collars are removed, cribbing behavior rebounds to levels higher than before the collar was used, as thought the horses are trying to make up for lost time (Equine Veterinary Journal Supplement 30, 30-34).
The Miracle Collar is a more humane cribbing collar. It doesn't use metal, just leather to prevent cribbing. I used one of these on an off-the-track thoroughbred who came to us with an enormous cribbing problem, and it did reduce the frequency of his cribbing. But it turned out that he was cribbing because he had ulcers. Once those were treated, his cribbing declined on its own.
4. Holistic Treatments
Dr. Joyce Harman of Harmany Equine Clinic states that she has use the herbal formula APF to reduce cribbing in horses.
One extreme but extremely effective means of curbing cribbing is surgery, specifically a surgical technique called the laser-assisted revised modified Forssell's procedure (or LARMF). It involves using a laser to cut the nerves and muscles horses use when cribbing. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24433410
A recent study on the techniques effectiveness involved 119 cases from 1994 to 2012. Key findings from the study were:
How about you? Share your stories or advice about how to handle cribbers.
Copyright Denise Cummins April 7, 2016
Opening Photo Credit: © Virgonira | Dreamstime.com - <a href="http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-palomino-horse-cribbing-wooden-fence-draught-stable-vice-image47853869#res9815805">Palomino horse cribbing wooden fence</a>
Denise Cummins, PhD has over 30 years experience in training horses, showing them, giving riding instruction, and owning/running a successful equestrian boarding and training faciilty. She is also a cognitive scientist who studies human and animal learning and behavior.