Whether it is called cribbing, crib biting, aerophagia, or (incorrectly) windsucking, this is a stereotypical behavior in horses that is likely caused by boredom or stress and there is possibly a genetic predisposition, according to a study published in 2014. Cribbing is a compulsive, repetitive behavioral disorder, and like any other harmful addiction, a cribber needs help controlling itself.
Once the habit is established there is no sure remedy for breaking it despite what you may read on websites selling herbs and gear. If you have a cribber, it’s certainly worth trying different things to control the habit, but some cases are incurable. You probably won’t be able to stop a horse from cribbing in every situation. And, even if you do control it well, and then sell the horse, it many start cribbing gain in its new home. So, if you’re selling a cribber, you must tell the new owner that the horse has this vice.
While it used to be believed that horses learn cribbing from others, that doesn't seem to be the case. Before you buy a horse, foal, donkey, or mule that cribs, make sure you are willing to deal with the damage to fences, trees, and stables and cope with some health risks that may come with cribbing.
What Is Cribbing?
Cribbing is characterized by a horse grabbing a horizontal object with its upper incisors and pulling against the object with an arched neck. Then the horse sucks in a large amount of air and makes a characteristic grunting sound.
Interestingly, cribbing is not a habit seen in wild horses. The thinking is that cribbing has a lot to do with how a horse is maintained. Boredom, temperament, stress, diet, and genetics may play a part in developing the vice.
Cribbing seems to start mostly in younger horses about several months old or so. To reduce the risk of cribbing, you can make sure the young horse spends as much time as possible on pasture and has a lot of social contact with other horses. There is some evidence to suggest that certain grain diets may increase the risk of this habit developing.
Can Cribbing Hurt the Horse?
There is no doubt that cribbing can have a negative impact on a horse's health. It can increase a horse's risk of getting colic or stomach ulcers. Also, excessive tooth wear may also affect the ability of older cribbers to eat properly. Cribbing may also result in weight loss; some horses may prefer to crib than eat. Alternatively, it is thought that excess air in the stomach from cribbing may decrease a horse's appetite.
How to Control Cribbing?
There is no absolute method to stop cribbing in certain horses, but there are ways to cope. Here are some suggestions that have been tried by those who have cribbers.
- A cribbing collar or a cribbing strap makes it uncomfortable for the horse to do the cribbing behavior by preventing the horse from flexing his neck muscles as he pulls back to gulp air. The strap makes it uncomfortable for the horse to flex his neck but the strap doesn't harm the horse.
- Diets that contain more forage and less grain seem to have less cribbing implications.
- A toy has been shown to reduce cribbing rates, as has more outdoor activity and socialization.
- You can eliminate cribbing surfaces or electrify cribbing surfaces such as fence posts.
- A surgical option is available that involves removing small pieces of certain muscles and nerves in the neck. However, this surgery requires general anesthesia and still in some horses may not completely solve the behavior. Many horse owners consider the surgery cost prohibitive.
Buying a Cribber?
"Does the horse have any vices?" should be on your list of questions for the owner of any horse you are considering buying. If you want less of a hassle starting out, you will probably want to avoid buying a cribber.
If you do buy a cribber, be prepared to deal with the habit the entire time you own the horse. Usually without drastic measures, such a surgery, a cribber will continue being a cribber for its entire life. If you are persistent and try enough methods of control, however, you may be able to manage the habit so that it’s not destructive to the horse or its home. But, it might be a long, uphill battle to get there.
Hemmann K, Ahonen S, Raekallio M, Vainio O, Lohi H. Exploration of known stereotypic behaviour-related candidate genes in equine crib-biting. Animal, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 347-53, 2014. doi:10.1017/S1751731113002346
Escalona, Ebony E et al. Prevalence of and risk factors for colic in horses that display crib-biting behaviour. BMC veterinary research, vol. 10, no. 1, 2014. doi:10.1186/1746-6148-10-S1-S3
Management Considerations for the Cribbing Horse. Ohio State University Extension.