How to Manage Cribbing Horses

Horses, like any other animal, can pick up bad habits. One frustrating habit that is common with horses is cribbing, also called wind sucking or aerophagia.

What is Cribbing?

Cribbing is the action where a horse will place their top incisors and bite on a hard surface like a fence post, then arch and pull back on their neck and gulp air. The act of cribbing produces a large grunting sound. This abnormal behavior often becomes habit forming for the horse and is a source of major frustration for many horse owners.

It is believed up to as many as 12% of all horses may start to crib. Yet, for a casual observer, cribbing doesn’t appear to be that dangerous of a behavior. More than anything, it would seem to be more of an annoyance for an owner. They might have to deal with damaged fences, stall doors, walls, or even fences. However, as cribbing persists and becomes more frequent, it can lead to serious health consequences for a horse.

Why a Horse Starts to Crib?

Why exactly a horse starts to crib is still being debated by behaviorists. What we do know is, due to confinement, horses tend to develop abnormal behaviors that we call stereotypies or vices. This is because horses have evolved to live in social groups, move over large distances, graze all day and exhibit other natural behaviors that confinement suppresses. This can lead to a bored or even stressed horse. Furthermore, our confined horses depend on us to feed them appropriately. Diets either lacking in key nutrients like fiber, or even diets too high in others like sugar and starch, can lead to the development of abnormal behaviors like cribbing. We know these behaviors are abnormal because they are usually never observed in wild or feral horses. Other abnormal behaviors observed in confined horses include:

  • Manure eating
  • Wood chewing
  • Stall pacing or paddock patrolling
  • Weaving
  • Pawing or digging

A long-held hypothesis on why a horse would persistently crib is because it was believed the act of cribbing would release endorphins. These “feel good” hormones would then become addictive for the horse. However, recent research is beginning to discount this theory. What is now becoming clearer is that horses have a genetic predisposition to cribbing. When horses are held in similar confinement, with the same management practices, some horses start to crib, while others do not. Even when horses observed another horse cribbing, they tend to not pick up (or learn) the behavior.

What we do know about cribbing is, the behavior can have detrimental health consequences to a horse. As the horse uses their upper incisors to grip a hard surface, their teeth will wear down over time. This can lead to issues with the horse not having the ability to forage. At that point, they would need to be put on a complete feed, like Seniority™ Pellet, to receive the nutrition they need.

Horses that crib may also be at risk of colic when compared to horses that do not. Through the act of sucking in air when cribbing, the horse puts tremendous pressure on their abdomen. This can lead to a type of colic called epiglottic foramen entrapment. This is where portions of the small intestine are forced through a small opening in the gut and leads to strangulation of the digestive tract, and can be quite dangerous for the horse.

There is debate on whether cribbing leads to the development of ulcers. Data has so far not shown that to be the case. However, a horse suffering from ulcers could develop a cribbing habit due to the pain and stress of ulcers. You can learn more by reading our What are Gastric Ulcers article.

Finally, other concerns with cribbing horses could include the horse choosing to crib rather than eat. This leads to weight loss, reduced performance and other health consequences due to nutritional deficiencies. Also, cribbing horses over time will overdevelop the neck muscles used to do this behavior, leading to incorrect muscling in the neck. Finally, some cribbing horses may also develop arthritis in the hyoid bone.

Treatment for a Cribbing Horse

Unfortunately, there is no “cure” for a cribbing horse. Many now believe devices or improper management techniques used to prevent a horse from cribbing actually induces more stress in these horses, leading to even more cribbing. Guidance now is leaning towards allowing this behavior but finding innovative ways to reduce the bouts a horse will crib. These could include:

  • Provide free access to forage 24 hours a day
  • Increased turn out time
  • Introduction of hay nets or other means to lengthen feeding times
  • Provide more enrichment like horse appropriate stall toys
  • Feed diets higher in fat and fiber
  • Reduce the amount of starch and sugar in the horse’s diet.

Overall, as more research has become available, cribbing appears to be a behavior most owners will have to learn to live with. Yet, eliminating many of the triggers or stresses that will cause a horse to crib would be wise. Additionally, the introduction of innovative management strategies can at least reduce the amount of time a horse spends cribbing.

Do you have a cribber? We’d love to help you with a personalized feeding plan to support their health and needs. Contact us today!

Article By: Chris Mortensen, Ph.D.
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