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Managing the Horse That Cribs

Cribbing can be a difficult stereotypic behavior to stop in horses, but you can reduce it using creative management strategies.
Cribbing can wear down a horse’s incisors. | Getty Images

Cribbing (originally called crib-biting, because “crib” was another term for a manger) can be a noisy and destructive behavior. Most horse owners try to thwart this bad habit that some horses seem to be addicted to, but it can be difficult to stop altogether. Horses confined in stalls or small pens seem more likely to develop stereotypic, repetitive behaviors such as cribbing, weaving, or stall walking. Stereotypies are nearly unheard of in horses that live in natural conditions with large areas to roam and graze.

Cribbers place their incisor teeth on any horizontal surface (fence, manger, stall divider, water trough—whatever is handy), arch the neck to open the throat, and draw air into the upper part of the esophagus, making a grunting sound as they pull their head back. Another old term for cribbing is wind-sucking.

This repetitive activity might wear down the horse’s upper incisors. A cribber also develops thicker muscles under the neck, which can interfere with proper neck flexion when a rider tries to collect the horse. Some cribbers lose weight because they choose to crib instead of eat. Many horses that crib will continue cribbing even when turned out to pasture.

Cribbing Straps: Helpful but not a Solution

People use various methods to try to halt this activity, including covering wood surfaces with metal edges that are harder to grab or using cribbing straps or collars. The collars fasten around the throatlatch and tighten just enough to cause discomfort when the horse cribs—making it difficult to tense the muscles that retract the larynx. Some include a piece of metal or stiff leather under the throatlatch. When the horse arches his neck to crib, the strap—and the point of the metal or leather—tightens.

A cribbing strap is not a true solution; horses resume cribbing when you remove the strap and might crib more aggressively for a while after removal. The strap might wear hair off the throatlatch area, which can create sores if you don’t check, adjust, and clean it regularly. Leaving a strap on a horse all the time is also risky because it can catch on objects in the stall or paddock.

A Coping Mechanism for Stress

Trying to halt a behavior a horse uses to relieve stress might be counterproductive and possibly harmful. Carissa Wickens, PhD, assistant professor and extension equine specialist in the department of animal sciences at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, has participated in studies with cribbing horses and says stereotypies in general, and cribbing in particular, can be difficult to stop. If a horse has been cribbing for several years, even when the owner changes the diet and manages the horse with more social contact and forage in the diet, the behavior doesn’t stop, although the management changes might help reduce its frequency and intensity. 

“Horse owners often use a cribbing collar, and some may try surgery to remove portions of muscles on the underside of the neck that are used in cribbing,” she says. “The surgery generally includes neurectomy to remove some of the nerve on both sides that innervates the largest of these muscles. These tactics may not be completely successful, however, and fail to address underlying causes of the behavior.”

Some evidence shows that cribbing serves as a coping behavior to relieve stress, anxiety, or pain. “If it is linked to gastrointestinal irritation or stress, these underlying issues need to be addressed,” says Wickens. “Letting them be horses, with more turnout time and more social contact, may help relieve some of the environmental stress. Keeping forage in front of them for more of the day may also help.”

It might be necessary to use a cribbing collar during meals to encourage the horse to focus on eating. During other times of the day, it can be helpful to give the horse something to entertain himself with, such as a ball or lick-it toy, she says.  

“Often the best thing you can do is provide a companion, ample forage throughout the day, and turnout,” she adds. “This helps reduce cribbing behavior but doesn’t always stop it.”

To deter a cribber from loosening your fence rails or boards, it might be necessary to electrify the top portion. “Some horses become resourceful, however, when you thwart cribbing,” Wickens says. “We’ve witnessed horses cribbing on other horses in the pen or pasture if they can’t set their teeth on a tree, fence, or hay feeder.”

Placing several piles of hay in different areas in the field can encourage the horse to move around and forage, which can reduce stereotypic behaviors. This gives the horse exercise as well as food and mimics traveling and grazing—something more to do than just standing and eating at a feeder.

Take-Home Message

Although cribbing, like most stereotypic behaviors can be challenging to halt in horses, changing how they are managed can reduce their desire to crib. Horses that are turned out often and have other horses with or near them are often less likely to crib, and adjusting their feeding plan can also reduce cribbing; however, it is important to understand that horses typically crib in response to stress, so understanding the root cause of the behavior can be helpful when developing a management plan.

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