Almost everyone who rides horses has met a dedicated cribber. These are horses that crib, which means they press their front teeth against a stall door, fence post, or anything else that doesn’t move and take a sharp breath. This can damage barns and fences, wear down horses’ teeth, and cause health problems.
One of the most common stable vices is stealing. Scientists call these habits “stereotypes.” In the horse world, there are still a lot of myths and wrong ideas about this behavior. For instance, people used to think that horses could learn to crib by watching other horses do it. Even though this isn’t true, some boarding stables won’t let cribbers in because they don’t want the behavior to spread.
A new study by Swedish researchers Amir Sarrafchi and Harry J. Blokhuis suggests that the way many horse owners deal with horses that bite and do other bad things is based on a more dangerous myth. The study, which was published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, points to research that shows that these behaviors can be linked to how a horse’s environment is managed. The way a horse is fed, where it lives, and even how it is weaned can affect whether or not it develops stereotypies.
The research shows that horses do things like cribbing, stall walking, and weaving (moving from side to side at the front of the stall) to deal with stress. Most of the time, owners of horses with bad habits try to fix the behavior instead of the cause of the stress. Cribbing collars make it impossible for a horse to take a sharp breath in, which is what cribbing is. Kicking chains are put on horses that are in stalls to discourage them from moving around too much. But these kinds of treatments don’t deal with the stress that people think makes them act in a repetitive way in the first place.
There are still a lot of unknowns about how stable vices start and why horses show them. In their study, Sarrafchi and Blokhuis come to the conclusion that, despite the unknowns, there is more and more evidence that it is important to deal with the causes of bad behaviors instead of trying to stop them. They say that if you don’t do that, it could hurt the horses.
What exactly is cribbing?
Cribbing is a stereotype, which means that it is a behavior that people do over and over again. The horse grabs onto something solid with his top incisors, like a fence board, a bucket, or a door arches his neck and takes in air. Most of the time, gulping or belching can be heard. Some horses can sleep without anything to bite on. This taking in of air gives the horse a kind of “head rush.” The rush to the head is fun. Cribbing is not the same as chewing on wood. Cribers may damage the surface they crib on by scraping their teeth against it over and over, but they are not biting and chewing wood.
So why do horses crib?
Researchers who study animal welfare think that this kind of behavior may help relieve stress or physical pain. Some common reasons why people plagiarize are:
- Excessive energy
- Nutritional deficiencies
Researchers are still not sure if a horse that cribs can teach other horses to do the same thing. Dr. Sue McDonnell from the University of Pennsylvania has spent many years studying cribbers. From what she has seen, it is very rare for a horse that cribs to teach other horses to do the same thing. Rather, horses in the same area that all have the habit of cribbing are probably exposed to the same things that stress them out. Because horses don’t have many ways to show they are upset, they all choose to crib. They chose this on their own, not because of what they heard from each other.
Does cribbing hurt a horse?
Your horse’s health could be hurt by the way you treat it. Many horses’ top incisors will wear down, sometimes all the way to the gum line. This will make it hard for the horse to find food. It can also cause the top and bottom teeth to not fit together right. A cribber should pay extra attention to his or her teeth to avoid problems caused by tooth wear.
Studies have also shown that colic is more likely to happen in horses than crib. There is no way to know what kind or how bad the colic will be, but the risk is higher. Some people used to think that cribbers had more gas colic, but studies have shown that this is not the case.
Some horses can get so hooked on the thrill of cribbing that they won’t eat to do it. This can lead to losing weight, not getting enough food, and not doing well in school.
So how do I stop doing it?
The best way to keep a horse from cribbling is to try to get rid of or at least reduce his stress and boredom. Give your horse as much time in the pasture as is possible for you. Since horses are social animals, being around other horses can help them feel less stressed. Some people can make friends with a goat or chicken when there are no other horses around. It’s also important to exercise regularly to get rid of extra energy and keep your mind active.
Changing what your horse eats can help. People say that a cribber’s diet should have less or no grain. It is important to give roughage throughout the day. It’s hard for horses that are too thin to give up grain, but it might help their behavior. Researchers in the UK are working on special diets for cribbers that include antacids. These diets are meant to stop cribbers from crying as much.
Another way to stop your horse from cribbing is to make the places he cribs less appealing. Cover the tops of the doors with metal edges that are rounded, or paint the boards and doors with cayenne pepper or an anti-chew spray.
What about collars made of cribbing?
Some horses can be stopped from cribbing with the help of cribbing collars. Many times, you have to try out a few different styles before you find one that works with your horse. And the collar has to be very tight a lot of the time. Keep an eye out for any signs that the collar is hurting your horse or that it is having trouble breathing. There have been times when a very tight cribbing collar caused a horse to pass out. But this doesn’t happen very often, and it’s important to keep the behavior in check.
There are other ways to control a dog, like using a shock collar, acupuncture, or surgery. We haven’t found that any of these methods work very well.
Cribbing can’t be cured, but it can be managed by making changes to how your horse lives.
Managing a Horse that Cribs
When deciding whether or not to stop a horse from cribbing, it’s important to weigh the horse’s stress level against the risk of colic and other health problems caused by cribbing. Also, think about how damaging cribbing on barns and fences can be (Figure 1).
Cribbers want to crib and will work just as hard for a chance to do so as for a chance to eat sweet feed (Houpt, 2012). This could be because their brain chemistry has changed, especially when they are in a state of high motivation, which is often caused by feeding or the anticipation of feeding (McBride and Hemmings, 2005). Because of this, it is hard to stop a person who has a history of stealing from doing it again. Many horse managers have tried to stop horses from cribbing, and you can see how creative they are by how many different ways there are to stop a horse from cribbing.
The most common method is the cribbing collar (Figure 2). Most of the time, there are two straps on these collars. One goes in front of the ears and the other goes behind. A piece of galvanized steel is held in place under the horse’s neck by the straps. When the steel piece is in place, it hurts to bend the neck and do cribbing behavior. To prevent damage to the tissues, the collar must fit right. Most horses can be stopped from cribbing with a cribbing collar (McGreevy & Nicol, 1998b), but the collar only works if the horse is wearing it. After not being able to crib for a while, horses that are allowed to crib again may do it more often (McGreevy & Nicol, 1998b), as if to make up for lost time. Not all cribbers increase how often they do it after being stopped (Albright, Witte, Rohrbach, Reed, & Houpt, 2016).
A is a cribbing collar made of brown leather. B is a cribbing collar made of cream-colored leather with fleece padding on the straps. C is a cribbing collar on a horse.
Figure 2: Cribbing collars (A-C) are often padded (B) for the horse’s comfort, and when they are put on correctly, they don’t get in the way of the horse eating or drinking (C). (Leather Weaver)
Several studies have shown that pharmacological agents can stop or stop people from stealing, but they only work for an hour or less (Renden, Shuster, and Dodman, 2001), so they are not good solutions.
The horse’s manager can also control how often a horse cribs by how they feed the horse. After a concentrate meal, more people steal (Gillham, Dodman, Shuster, Kream, & Rand, 1994). If it’s possible, making diets with more forage and less grain can help stop animals from stealing. Even though it’s best to feed horses little and often, horses that get a lot of small concentrate meals may crib more because cribbing is linked to feeding time (McCall, Tyler, McElhenney, & Fenn, 2009). Horses spend most of their time cribbing and staring at their feeders. Because they spend so much time and energy cribbing, they can be harder to care for than other horses. Too much tooth wear can also make it hard for older people to use their food.
Cribbers should be able to go outside and meet other horses. Even though cribbing still happens when turnout and companion horses are available, it happens less (Wickens, 2009). Some cribbers are kept away from other horses so that the behavior doesn’t spread, but it’s not likely that one horse can teach another how to crib. The welfare of the cribber will improve if it can hang out with other horses. If you need to keep a cribber stable, giving them a toy has been shown to slightly cut down on the number of cribbers (Whisher et al., 2011). These horses can reduce their stress by going outside, meeting new people, and making sure they don’t get bored.
Other ways to stop cribbing that work but require a lot of work are getting rid of cribbing surfaces, using taste deterrents, electrifying cribbing surfaces, using drugs, giving foals oral antacids (Nicol, Davidson, Harris, Waters, and Wilson, 2002), surgery (Krisová, ert, and uffová, 2015), and eating more.