Monday, February 4, 2008

When your young horse cribs

Skip article (it's long!) and go to Cribbing Resources.

Not my child!
I dislike the word "vice." The word may have emerged in the Victorian era -- a derogatory label for certain behaviors. Those Victorians and their corsets, their lorgnettes, their high falutin' ways and unattainable standards!

Did I mention my youngster has a vice? No one goes out looking for a horse with a vice, and some won't consider owning one. From statistics, though, it seems that 30% of us own horses with some sort of vice, and about 10% of us own a cribber. Statistically, cribbers are more prone to certain ailments--and some of them are pretty serious. On an individual basis, I know many cribbers in fine health, and non-cribbers that are plagued by issues. This is not to make light of vices, but every horse is an individual. One friend of mine, an avid lifetime horsewoman, lamented the problem of cribbing but also said that some of her most competitive, intelligent horses were cribbers.

Riley's story
If you've ever wondered how cribbing starts, studies suggest the average age of onset is 20 weeks, or around weaning. Riley started later. After weaning at 5 months, Riley was moved to PA to a farm where he was pastured 24/7 with 3 other babies his age. He had grain twice a day and ample grass, hay, and water. At 10 months of age, he began to spend time at the fences of his pasture. He would thoughtfully bite down on a post, as` if he was trying to decide if he liked it. I called the vet immediately, and trailered him to a facility for diagnostic work (these adventures are chronicled elsewhere), but no gastric cause was found. Still he chewed, and ultimately he started showing an inclination to crib. The barn owner, also a breeder, feared that her own babies would learn the habit. Eventually it seemed best for everyone to move to a new facility. In a parting phone conversation with the barn owner, she made dire predictions as to his value and his future--she was pretty emotional about it. Nonsense, I thought to myself as we said our goodbyes. I was concerned but optimistic. We were catching it early.

New Digs
I moved Riley to a riding barn where I'd boarded Harvey. I have known the barn manager for many years, and it was an incredible relief to have her "on the case." She had some tricks up her sleeve to address the behavior, but more importantly she had a balanced perspective. No, no one wants their horse to crib. But three of the 22 horses in her barn were off the track, lifetime cribbers, competing successfully as hunters and jumpers. She also winter-boarded a stall spinner, a grand-prix level arab that had an uncanny bond with his owner. He wore his stall mat to threads within a month or so, but he piaffed and passaged his way to national awards.

Riley adjusted well to the new, more active environment, and he thrived on attention from boarders. He got ample turnout in a hotwired pasture, and he had a stall, too. He had free choice hay, and his grain was reduced. Riley went for months with almost no cribbing. Episodes he did have were half-hearted, and fleeting. I felt hopeful we'd turned a corner. Then in the fall, herds were shuffled, and he was introduced to a pasture with adult horses and no hot wire. We also changed his feeding program to what we thought would be better for a long yearling. The cribbing behavior resurfaced. We tried making numerous changes, but no luck. Finally, the barn manager insisted we cut back drastically on his concentrate feed. I was reluctant to deviate from the recommendations of the Progressive Nutrition representative, but agreed to try it. Within days, the cribbing behavior ceased. I feel Riley will always have this tendency, but it looks like his behavior can be controlled by making simple changes.

What is to be done about cribbing?
No magic answers here. I'll put in a plug for Raplast, which works in small areas/indoors to deter cribbing. It's about as fun to work around as mace, so wear gloves and a mask, and DON'T buy the spray version. Use the one with the brush applicator. If you or your horse has skin sensitivity, use Dial soap instead.

Aside from that, my advice is to look at all aspects of the environment--feed, turnout, stress, confinement, the whole works. There may be several factors at play in causing your horse to crib. At some point, though, you may have to accept that you might not know what causes it, and you might not be able to eradicate it. It's important to try to control it, though. In a personal communication, Katherine Ann Houpt, a veterinarian and faculty member at Cornell University, gave this advice. "Because of the risk of colic I reluctantly advise cribbing collars, but feed lots of hay and oats rather than sweet feed." She also indicated that increased turnout may help.

The resources below offer different perspectives and sometimes contradictory information. For example, there are differing opinions on whether it is learned, whether it causes endorphin release, and whether it should be curtailed. I've included a few Chronicle posting threads, because it's helpful to hear from owners of cribbers.

Putting the kibosh on cribbing reprinted from California Thoroughbred, November 2004

Comparison of Gastric pH in crib-biting and non-crib-biting horses.
An abstract of research from Auburn University, suggesting that cribbers have a more acidic gastric environment than normal horses. Cribbing may lower gastrointestinal pH.

Study of crib-biting and gastric inflammation and ulceration in young horses. Reprint from Veterinary Record, November 30, 2002.
Study of young foals showed that an antacid supplement decreased cribbing behavior.

Risk factors associated with behavioural disorders of crib-biting, weaving and box-walking in Swiss horses.
Abstract of Equine Veterinary Journal article, concluding that a diet high in roughage and low in concentrates, combined with turnout with other horses, can decrease sterotypic behaviors.

Waters, AJ. Factors influencing the development of stereotypic and redirected behaviours in young horses: findings of a four year prospective epidemiological study. Equine Vet J. 2002 Sep;34(6):572-9.
Feeding concentrates after weaning was associated with a 4-fold increase in the rate of development of crib-biting. Summarizes the effect of housing and feed on likelihood of developing stereotypic behaviors.

Prevalence of stereotypic behaviors
University of Sydney study examines prevalence of vice and factors associated with it.

Pell, S. M. A study of cortisol and beta-endorphin levels in stereotypic and normal Thoroughbreds. Applied Animal Behavior Science. 64(2) June 1999. p. 81-90.
Studies of endorphin levels in cribbers has yielded contradictory results. This study showed no differences in endorphin levels of cribbers vs. non-cribbers. The authors suggest that stereotypic horses have inherited opioid receptors with a greater sensitivity than those of normal horses. In short, they theorize that a hereditary component predisposes horses to cribbing.

Association between cribbing and entrapment of the small intestine in the epiploic foramen in horses: 68 cases (1991–2002)
Abstract of a 2004 study from Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, suggesting that horses that crib are more prone to a particular type of collc, epiploic foramen entrapment (EFE) of the small intestine.

Recent Advances in the Treatment of Equine Stereotypic Behaviour
White paper suggests that cribbing is an attempt to increase alkaline saliva flow to reduce the increased acidity associated with feeding concentrate rations.

What to do with a cribber.
Basic advice for the novice horse owner.

Can dietary changes prevent cribbing?
Cornell University is doing cutting-edge research on cribbing, and this article is a myth-debunker, claiming: cribbing does not ingest much air; does not cause the release of endorphins; and that cribbing itself may not be as harmful as once thought (suggests providing a padded bar for a horse to crib on).

from The Horse Magazine
Summary of the behavior (what it is), its adverse effects, and managing cribbing.

Book Excerpt: Controlling Cribbing
An excerpt from Understanding Your Horse's Behavior. A vet makes the case that cribbing is not learned behavior. Requires a login.

Chronicle of the horse threads

Let's talk about cribbing

Molasses and cribbing
Cribber! Has anyone owned one?
Would you accept a cribber into your barn?


  1. Thank you for combining all this - very interesting!!

  2. I appreciate you gathering all this information about cribbing in one place. Very interesting and very helpful. Someone has offered me a young horse that cribs and I needed to learn more about it.


Hi Guys, Your comments are valued and appreciated -- until recently I never rejected a post. Please note that I reserve the right to reject an anonymous post.