There is always that one horse at the barn who will crib or wood chew – and often it is the retired OTTB who we attribute “He learned that at the race yard”. Cribbing is type of habit where the horse anchors their top teeth onto a fixed object – generally the stall door or a fence – they pull backwards with their teeth clenched contracting the neck muscles and taking air into the oesophagus. This is accompanied by a distinctive and loud grunting noise. It is not limited to any particular breed, age or gender of horse and has been seen in many different types of horse. Many owners consider cribbing to be a learned behaviour and unfortunately once a horse begins cribbing it is very difficult to completely stop the horse from continuing. However there are some things that can help to reduce the damage caused by cribbing and how often the horse demonstrates this behaviour.
Why do horses crib?
Generally owners will consider their horse has learnt to crib from another horse however recent studies have demonstrated that only a small proportion of horses may fall into this category. Some researchers suggest that there is a neuropathic cause for cribbing with specific brain pathology – similar to obsessive compulsive disorder in humans whereas other studies have shown complex gastrointestinal issues, particularly ulcers, can exacerbate cribbing. A further contributing factor is likely to be a genetic predisposition – there appears to be a greater prevalence of cases of cribbing in thoroughbreds than any other breed although it is seen in most breeds.
Management techniques will impact upon the severity of the cribbing and certain environmental factors will cause stress in a horse which will ultimately lead a cribber to display this behaviour more often. Not only is cribbing irritating but it can actually cause issues and lead to poor health for the horse – the horse can damage the teeth and in severe cases the horse may suffer weight loss and poor condition from repetitive behaviour.
Making adjustments to the horse’s routine, stall and management can help reduce the regularity of cribbing and ultimately the health of the horse.
How can I reduce my horse’s cribbing behavior?
Many studies suggest that there is a link between low forage and high concentrate diets, such as those provided to performance horses and racehorses in training. This type of feeding is extremely unnatural for the horse and puts unnecessary strain on the digestive system and transit times of food matter. Providing the horse with a high fibre forage based diet as close to nature as possible can help reduce boredom and thus reduce cribbing. If the horse cannot be turned out at pasture for as much of the time as possible he should be provided with ad lib supply of hay – splitting the hay amongst multiple nets and with fine mesh to slow feeding times can help replicate natural feeding.
The horse is a social animal, they remain in herd groups in the wild and as such when a horse is isolated he can find this stressful and unnatural. Many cases of cribbing are seen in horses that are kept alone or away from others which suggest a link between maintaining natural group dynamics to help reduce habit behaviors. Ideally the horse should be turned out to grass as many hours per day as possible – with suitable blankets in winter – and with a group of other horses. Social enrichment can help provide the mental stimulation to reduce cribbing , particularly when out in the field.
There are a couple of further techniques for reducing cribbing that have traditionally been used but their success is questionable and in fact they may cause further issues. Cribbing collars are available to purchase which are designed to stop the horse moving his neck in an effort to prevent cribbing – often horses find these frustrating and natural movements can be limited. Furthermore owners used to paint surfaces that the horse regularly grabbed with his teeth with distasteful paints – generally this does not stop a horse cribbing, instead he will chew at the surface until the paint has gone and in the process can ingest dangerous toxins.
Cribbing can be an annoying and potentially a risk to the horse’s health. By implementing careful management including a high forage, natural diet, plenty of turnout time and time with other horses, it is likely that cribbing may be reduced.
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