By Liz Greene

If you’ve never seen it before, cribbing can be an alarming thing to witness. A horse cribs by pressing its teeth onto an object (usually the top of stall boards, a fence, or post), arching its neck, sucking air into its throat, and then releasing the air all at once. The release of air makes a characteristic belching sound.

Cribbing is a stereotypy — a persistent, repetitive act that has no obvious purpose — and can develop in any breed of horse, regardless of temperament. What’s more, cribbing is an addictive behavior. Studies have shown that cribbing relieves stress by causing a release of endorphins. The body generates endorphins to aid in pain reduction, but they also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. A cribbing horse can become addicted to endorphins, just as a person can become addicted to drugs.

While cribbing may seem like little more than a destructive nuisance, it can lead to health problems.

Why Do Horse Crib?

Cribbing is generally connected to stress and frustration in horses. Unfortunately, once a horse begins to crib — for whatever reason — it will persist with the behavior for the duration of its life. Although there is no singular reason horses crib, there are a few factors associated with cribbing in general.

Early Weaning

A study from the University of Bristol found considerable evidence that weaning age and weaning methods have a significant influence on the development of cribbing.

Infrequent Social Interaction with Other Horses

Horses are herd animals and have a strong, natural desire to be with other horses. Horses who have limited social contact with other horses participate in more obsessive behavior than horses who socialize regularly. Furthemore, confinement and boredom have been found to contribute to the development of cribbing.

Insufficient Grazing or Foraging Opportunities

If you let your pastured horses graze, they’d easily spend 8 to 12 hours a day doing so. Grazing is an important part of a horse’s welfare as it satisfies their nutritional and behavioral needs. Unfortunately, stabled horses can’t always be given continuous daily grazing time. When deciding where to stable your horse, choose a site where your horse can get the maximum turnout time. If you have your own property, consider managing your grazing schedule and making sure your horses spend plenty of time foraging.

What are the Negative Impacts of Cribbing?

Cribbing can cause excessive wear of a horse’s teeth. In severe cases, it will wear them down to the point that a horse can’t chew its feed properly. Since cribbing is addicting, a horse might choose to spend more time cribbing than eating, leading to chronic weight loss. Additionally, the pulling motion associated with cribbing can result in abnormal muscle development in the neck — although this is mostly a cosmetic problem.

Cribbing is also destructive to property. Fence posts, stable boards & gates, and trees are often destroyed by the repeated wear from the horse’s teeth.

How Can You Prevent It?

To prevent the habit from starting, arrange 6 to 10 hours of grazing time with other horses, provide daily, diverse exercise, and feed varied foraging types when your horse is in the stall.

Unfortunately, established cribbing is nearly impossible to eliminate. Treatment varies depending on the horse and history of the cribbing behavior. The following practices can reduce cribbing:

  • Increase contact with other horses — whether during turnout or within view while stabled.
  • Increase pasture turn-out time.
  • Feed concentrates from a foraging device, such as an Equiball or Likit.
  • Use straw bedding to force your horse to pick hay from the straw — similar to what a horse does when grazing.
  • Since cribbing may actually benefit horses by allowing them to deal with frustration, it might be prudent to let your horse crib on something that that can’t be damaged or cause any harm. Safe cribbing surfaces can be created out of heavy rubber, such as old car tires.

There are ways to physically prevent cribbing (such as cribbing collars), but they may increase your horse’s stress; doing more harm than good. As with most stereotypies, it’s important to address the cause, rather than just the symptoms.

Liz Greene hails from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. She’s a lover of all things geek and is happiest when cuddling with her dogs and catching up on the latest Marvel movies. You can follow her on Twitter @LizVGreene or delve deeper into her internal musings at InstantLo