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What is Horse Cribbing?

horse cribbing

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First-time horse ownership can often be intimidating and sometimes even overwhelming. Horses have a unique set of behavioral and nutritional needs that new horse owners are expected to become well-versed in. This includes an understanding of the potential behavioral issues horses are prone to developing, such as horse cribbing. By understanding what horse cribbing is, you can help prevent this habit from developing in your horse.

What is Cribbing?

Horse cribbing is a “stereotypical behavior defined as a repetitive movement or behavior with no obvious function for the animal,” says Dr. Douglas Thal, DVM, an American Board of Veterinary Practictioners diplomate and owner of Thal Equine in Santa Fe County, New Mexico.

During horse cribbing, a horse bites down on a solid object while grunting and sucking in air. Sometimes recognized as only a bad habit, horse cribbing and wind sucking can be associated with other health issues.

What Does Horse Cribbing Look Like?

A horse that is cribbing will have his incisor (front) teeth placed on the top of his stall door or a fence post and he will be arching his neck while making a low grunting noise. The horse “grabs onto a stationary object, bites down and tenses the muscles in his neck and abdomen, sucking air into his esophagus,” Dr. Thal explains.

You can tell if a horse has been cribbing because the wood or plastic surfaces your horse has access to will begin to look chipped away at. From the tops of their stall doors to your paddock fence posts or wood railings, you will notice that chunks of wood have been removed.

What Causes a Horse to Crib?

Horse cribbing can be “likely caused by frustration, boredom, stress or brain dysfunction, and [is] common in stalled, domestic horses,” Dr. Thal says. Horse cribbing is thought to release endorphins and create a “high” for the horse, encouraging them to engage in this behavior—especially when no other means of stimulation is available.

“The habit tends to develop when horses are deprived of the lifestyle they were evolved to live in—movement, constant snacking, socialization with the herd,” Dr. Thal says. “Young horses are especially likely to develop the behavior around weaning time if conditions are right.”

Occasionally, a horse may crib in response to abdominal pain, also known as colic. If your horse doesn’t regularly crib, nothing has been significantly changed in his routine and you notice a sudden onset of this behavior, it may be a symptom of a more significant underlying condition that is causing him pain.

Can Cribbing Be Harmful for My Horse?

The strain and tension needed for a horse to crib takes energy throughout the day. Horse cribbing can make your horse more tired and less likely to want to eat, which can cause cribbers to lose weight. Additionally, Dr. Thal says cribbing causes excessive wear and damage to the incisor teeth, along with damage to the facilities and fences. Cribbers also tend to experience colic and gastric ulcers more often than non-cribbing horses.

Recently, both cribbing and wind sucking have also been associated with small intestinal entrapment—a condition that causes colic. This is likely due to the changes in intra-abdominal pressure the horse experiences while cribbing, says Dr. Thal. Colic can often be a serious condition and require immediate veterinary intervention.

Though cribbing and wind sucking don’t directly cause harm to your horse, they have been linked to issues that can cause serious, and even potentially fatal, damage and strain. Preventing this habit will keep your horse happy and healthy for years to come.

What to Do If Your Horse is Cribbing

“If your horse has started cribbing, immediately try changing their environment and management—reduce grain, provide long-stem grass hay in large quantities, provide increased and consistent exercise, and maximize contact and turnout with other horses,” says Dr. Thal. A cribbing collar, like the Weaver leather horse miracle collar, can be used in turnout or in his stall and can help to deter cribbers. Cribbing collars are designed to apply pressure when the horse begins to crib.

Additionally, stall entertainment—such as the Tough-1 himalayan rock salt brick, which can be attached to your horse’s stall wall with the Tough-1 salt block holder— can help eliminate boredom and destructive behaviors while providing your horse with necessary nutrients that could be lacking from his diet.

If you suspect that your horse has developed a cribbing habit, contact your veterinarian. They will be helpful in evaluating cribbing by trying to relieve the habit through management and environment. They can also determine whether the behavior developed as a result of an underlying medical issue, such as colic.

How to Prevent Horse Cribbing

Ideally, you’d want to prevent circumstances that could cause cribbing. “These behaviors are easier to prevent than eliminate once they become established,” Dr. Thal says.

Stimulating the minds of horses, particularly young foals and weanlings, by providing adequate turnout and grazing can keep them preoccupied and uninterested in developing the cribbing habit.

For the time that horses spend in their stalls, horse toys, such as the Horsemen’s Pride jolly ball horse toy or Horsemen’s Pride stall snack combo with apple scented ball treat, can help to keep them mentally stimulated and provide them with more productive outlets for their energy.

Is Wind Sucking the Same as Cribbing?

While both horse cribbing and wind sucking may seem very similar, there are some key differences between the two.

Horse cribbing specifically refers to a horse using their incisor teeth to grasp a fixed object while pulling in air and making a gulping sound. Wind sucking, on the other hand, refers to the act of a horse arching their neck and pulling air into their esophagus without grabbing onto a fixed object. Because in both activities the horse is gulping air into their esophagus, they’re considered similar behaviors.

Once again, contact your veterinarian if you suspect that your horse is cribbing.

By Nicole Janija

Originally from Chicago, Nicole  joined the Chewy team as a marketing intern in January 2017. Since then, Nicole has continued writing and photographing for Chewy as a Content Collaborator while completing her education at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. She is majoring in both marketing and corporate innovation, before returning to Chewy as a Marketing Analyst. In her free time, Nicole enjoys traveling, riding her horse or snuggling up with her Pug, @zoetheloaf, and Terrier, Cozmo.