Crib biting – or cribbing – is a negative equine behaviour recognised for over one hundred years. It is not only destructive to stable doors, field fencing and gates, but can affect your horse’s overall health.
Many experts have tried to pinpoint the cause of cribbing and have arrived at different theories. This vice remains much of a mystery, but today we will explore this behaviour, by providing possible causes and solutions.
What is Crib Biting (Cribbing)
Crib biting is when a horse opens its mouth and latches onto any immovable object. It can then suck air into its throat, making the distinctive sound associated with cribbing. It is very similar to wind sucking, another stereotypical behaviour of horses. Wind sucking is different in that the horse does not have to grab onto something to do it.
Cribbing is typically a stable vice, but can also happen in the field, and is considered an oral stereotype. It is a repetitive behaviour or habit, that seems almost like an addiction for the horse.
Between 10-20% of horses repetitively crib bite or windsuck.
Why do Horses Crib
There are several theories as to why a horse may crib bite. The exact reason is still difficult to uncover. It is not known why one horse, from a group of horses, managed the same way, develops a cribbing habit.
Restriction could be one cause of cribbing. This refers to horses that spend most of their time confined to a stable. Or those that do not get a lot of exercise or socialisation. Horses fed high amounts of concentrate feed are at higher risk of crib-biting.
A study found that 10% of horses started cribbing at 20-weeks old; the average age of weaning. The unnatural process of taking a foal away from its mother quickly and adding concentrate feed to its diet increases the risk even more. Foals weaned by being kept in a stable or small group indoors instead of outside grazing are more likely to crib.
Both abrupt weaning and confinement are stressful for the horse. Under stress, a horse will have an increase in cortisol. The development of crib-biting is thought to be a way of coping with stress – stress relief. A study found that crib-biting horses that were prevented from cribbing had higher cortisol levels than those allowed to crib. It also found that the resting heart rate of a crib-biting horse was higher than a non-cribber.
This brings us to the general temperament of horses. Horses that are more reactive or nervous are more disposed to a cribbing habit. Crib biting horses have shown higher endorphin levels, demonstrating the behaviour is giving them some stress relief. The release of endorphins helps explain why cribbing becomes such an ingrained habit that is impossible to cure. Long time cribbers appear so addicted to the behaviour that they are often seen crib-biting a fence when in a large, grass-filled field.
Another reason horses start crib-biting is related to gastrointestinal issues, particularly ulcers. This ties into stress, a cause of ulcers and the relief the horse gets from the behaviour. Cribbing is also connected to diet. A high concentrate, low fibre diet increased the risk of ulcers and cribbing.
Further, it’s not uncommon to see a horse crib bite after being given a treat. It could be that the horse is excitedly seeking more.
Is Cribbing Harmful
The most obvious harmful effect is excessive tooth wear. A horse that spends years cribbing will wear down its front teeth, causing issues with eating when it is older. Most horses will bite on wood – fences, stable doors, broom handles, etc. But if nothing like that is around, they can choose to bite a metal gate, or even a brick wall, which clearly increases the chance of tooth damage.
Cribbing has also been linked to a risk of colic.However, the risk of colic is not due to the horse sucking air into its stomach. This theory was disproved by x-raying a cribbing horse. But the horse’s higher stress levels could increase colic risk. Long term exposure to stress hormones can affect the horse’s heart and immune system.
In addition to affecting the horse’s health, cribbing is also harmful to property. Horses will crib on any fixed object. This means feed troughs, water buckets, fences, and stable doors all suffer damage from cribbing.
You’ve probably seen that stable door with a heavily worn gouge in the middle. Some yards will not accept a cribbing horse because of this, as it will increase the yard owners repair costs.
While not everyone will care, cribbing affects the value of the horse. For a sport horse producer, this means that a talented horse could sell for much less if it cribs. Many people do not want to buy a heavy crib biter because of the damage they cause and the preconceived notions regarding their health.
Ways to Stop a Horse from Crib Biting
Unfortunately, it might not be impossible to stop a horse from crib-biting completely once the habit has developed. The only way to stop a horse from crib-biting is to prevent it from starting in the first place with good management practices.
However, if you find yourself caring for a cribber, there are some things you can do to reduce the habit. Firstly, do not prevent the horse from cribbing by using the outdated cribbing collar, surgery, or medications. Preventing the horse, demonstrating a coping behaviour, will only increase stress and make the cribbing worse.
Change the way the horse is managed. Remove as much concentrate feed from the diet as possible and replace it with fibre. This could be access to ad-lib hay, grass, and feeding a fibre-based ration. Adding a well-balanced omega oil and supplement that helps settle the stomach is also a good idea. Keep feed to low starch and sugar options.
Create a place for the horse to crib if you want to protect other areas from damage. Make sure the horse gets plenty of exercise and paddock time. Don’t prevent the horse from socialising with others. It has been disproven that horses copy the habit, and having a companion will help reduce stress.
Provide toys for the horse or objects such as a salt lick to help the horse satisfy its oral behaviour tendencies. They also provide boredom relief, distracting the horse from cribbing. Enrichment with activities, friends, and turnout help reduce cribbing.
Try coating stable doors and fences – or wherever your hose tends to bite – with an anti-cribbing cream. These creams, like Cribox, have a repelling taste and smell to most horses, which is often an effective treatment.
Finally, in extreme cases, you may need to use a cribbing muzzle. Now, these masks look quite harsh, but they are less stressful than a collar. The grill allows the horse to graze and eat as normal while preventing them from being able to bite down on large objects.
Understandable, a lot of horse owners are not in favour of these muzzles, as the horse can become agitated at being able to come into contact with a surface that they would normally be able to crib bite, but as prevented by the mask. That is why we would only recommended this as a last resort.
Allowing a Horse to Crib Bite
There’s a flip side to the coin, in that some horse owners want to allow their horse to crib bite, because they believe that it’s a stress reliever, and restricting it may cause the horse even more anxiety and stress. This is a valid point, that does not have a right or wrong answer.
If you think that forcing your horse to stop cribbing may do more harm then good, then consider creating an environment that minimises harm to the horse and damage to objects. Stable doors for example – you could screw a thick piece of wood across the top of the stable door. Talk with a good joiner and the yard owner to put this in place.
This would allow the horse to crib bite a secure wooden beam, while protecting the stable door from damage. When the wooden beam is worn down, simply replace with a new one and you won’t need to worry about damage to the stable door itself.
The same thing can be done in the field. Have a section of fence with an extra beam of wood where the horse is allowed to crib bite, and simply replace when necessary.
To encourage cribbing of these reinforced areas, use some Cribox or other cream on areas that you don’t want to horse to bite, leaving the designated areas free. Also, only wave the horse away from any areas you don’t want them to bite, and allowing biting of the reinforced sections.