The Link Between Cribbing and Colic in Horses.

Colic is one of those conditions that, as horse people, we dread. Colic can vary from mild, easily resolved cases to severe impaction which can be potentially fatal. As equine caretakers, we strive to minimize exposure to any factors which may exacerbate colic or episodes of gastric disturbance. Such factors can include cribbing and windsucking. These stall vices have long been associated with an increased risk of colic. A recent UK study yielded some rather fascinating results regarding the prevalence of colic in horses that display cribbing and windsucking behavior. 

How Common is Colic in Horses who Crib and Windsuck?

Researchers investigated cases where owners reported their horses were cribbing or windsucking. The owners of 367 horses were asked to complete a questionnaire‐based survey about the management and health of their horses. The survey quantified the number of cases of colic had been treated, allowing the team to calculate the prevalence of colic in these horses. The results were based on two variables: any incidence of colic or a history of colic in the previous 12 months. The researchers also sought to identify a variety of barn management factors which may have influenced colic episodes. 

Horse in a stall
Horses kept in a stall for a prolonged period may get bored and start cribbing

Out of 367 horses, one or more episodes of colic had been observed in 130 horses, approximately 35% of the total number of horses in the study. In total, 672 colic episodes were reported. Out of these cases, 13 colic episodes required surgical intervention.

What Barn Management Factors Influence Episodes of Colic?

The study enabled the researchers to isolate risks relevant to equine colic episodes. Some of these included:

  • Increased time in the stall during autumn months (September through November,) cribbing and windsucking while in the stall and being fed haylage, (forage that is baled at a higher moisture content than dry hay and then stored in a sealed plastic wrap) as their primary source of forage.

Increasing severity (frequency) of cribbing and windsucking behavior was associated with increased risk of colic during the previous 12 months.  The more exaggerated the horse’s vices, the higher the risk of that horse colicking.

Why is there a Greater Risk of Colic in Horses Who Crib and Windsuck?

There are several theories about this relationship. Cribbers are known to be more highly strung and susceptible to anxiety than their non-cribbing neighbor’s. An anxious horse’s body increased gastric secretions can affect the speed of transit through the GI tract. This, in itself, can cause gastric disturbance and colic.  When “windsucking,” the horse does not grasp an object before gulping air.  If the horse does this regularly, he will constantly swallow air, which in turn will result in chronic distension of the abdomen, which can trigger colic.  It you notice cording of the neck muscles, (Where the horse’s neck appears to ripple when arched,) this results from the horse forcing air into its stomach. In these instances, the horse should be closely monitored for signs of gastric disturbance.

Another risk factor is horses who are not fed sufficient forage. This may possibly cause the horse to become bored, and they may deal with their boredom by cribbing or windsucking. The stress on their gastric tract can lead to episodes of abdominal pain and colic. This can be avoided by an adding a liberal supply of forage to prevent boredom and gastric issues. Consider using hay nets to give the horse a challenge while eating. As always, if you think this may be a concern with your horse, consult with your veterinarian.

*Image courtesy of Dollar Photo Club