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On our way to school, we would pass a horse biting the top of a wood fence posts. The horse would be there every morning. Looking back on that makes me wonder, why do horses crib on wood.
Horse’s crib to release dopamine and endorphins, chemicals in the brain that reduces anxiety and increases pleasure. The reason they crib on wood is that it’s pliable and readily available.
The precise reason that horses crib isn’t known, but recent studies have increased our understanding of this odd behavior.
Why horses chew on wood (crib)?
Cribbing, also known as “stereotypic behavior,” is an abnormal horse habit that can be troubling for horse owners. Cribbing horses repetitively bite and chew on a solid surface such as a fence or stall wall with their front teeth, sometimes to the point of wearing down their teeth (a condition called crib-biting).
Horses can be plagued by different issues that lead them to chew on things like wood which is not good for a horse’s mouth, so it’s important to find what could be causing this behavior before there is permanent damage done.
Horses crib because of a lack of social contact.
Cribbing is the act of a horse using their top incisor teeth to grab hold of a fixed object, (i.e. wood fence post,) pullback and contract its neck muscles to suck air in and emit a grunt (wind sucking). The act is repeated compulsively.
A horse kept in a stall with minimal social contact exhibits increased crib type behavior, but by introducing other horses to the stalled horse or increasing turnout time reduced the stereotypical behavior.
Cribbing can be caused by a lack of foraging opportunities.
Cribbing is triggered for a variety of reasons, such as a lack of social contact and foraging opportunities, poor concentrated feed management, abrupt weaning, and stomach irritation.
In general, horses kept in pastures versus stalls have a decreased risk of becoming a wind sucker. And some studies have shown that horses with more turnout time with other horses also reduce the habit.
Cribbing can be caused by weaning a foal improperly.
The treatment and care of foals influence the likelihood that a horse develops wind sucking behavior. Foals fed concentrates too soon after weaning are four times more likely to develop this adverse behavior.
Also, naturally weaned foals are less likely to be wind suckers than foals weaned abruptly. Further, foals kept in stalls after weaning are more likely to develop cribbing behavior than ones allowed to forage on grass.
If the behavior is recognized early and proper management techniques are employed, wind sucking can be prevented. The key is to find the stressor causing the condition and address it.
In some horses, cribbing is a learned behavior.
Some equine experts suggest that horses bite wood because they are copying the actions of another horse. Some horse owners have reported that a horse on their farm started wind sucking after another horse with cribbing behavior arrived.
There is not enough relevant information for researchers to confirm that copying is happening or other social factors contributed to the onset of the behavior.
It could be possible that the introduction of a new horse increased anxiety in the other horse and led to adverse habits, or the original horse was kept longer in a stall after the new horse’s arrival.
Cribbing releases stress.
Two studies have indicated that wind sucking releases stress and decreases pain in horses. The studies noted reduced heart rates and cortisol concentration following episodes of cribbing.
Wind sucking also releases dopamine and endorphins. Dopamine is a chemical that influences pleasure, motivation, and learning. Endorphins are hormones in the brain which activate the body’s opiate receptors, reducing the perception of pain.
Cribbing reduces stomach pain in horses.
Improper feed management of horses can lead to the development of stomach ulcers. Ulcers are more prevalent in horses housed in stalls and fed a predominately concentrated feed diet.
When a horse bites wood and sucks air, it increases the flow of saliva. Saliva acts as a buffer in the stomach and reduces pain created by ulcers. It was found that 60 percent of foals that crib have ulcers compared to only 20 percent without cribbing behavior.
There is a 2011 study that challenges the theory that saliva increases when a horse cribs. Click here to read the review.
Another reason a horse with ulcers may bite wood and suck air is to release dopamine and endorphins. These chemicals are known to dull pain and make horses feel better.
Do some horse breeds crib more than others?
Certain breeds of horses are more likely to latch on to a fixed object with their teeth and draw in air than other horses. Thoroughbreds are three times more likely, and Warmbloods are almost two times more likely than other breeds to develop wind-sucking behavior.
The reason these horses have a higher risk of developing this adverse behavior is likely because these breeds are used in equine competitions such as racing, dressage, and showjumping.
Competition horses are typically kept in a stall and have limited social contact with other horses, and are weaned earlier than other breeds. Stallions are more likely to be a cribber than mares, possibly because stallions are frequently isolated to control breeding and prevent conflict.
There are ongoing studies of the roles of genetics, management, and breeds to understand better precisely why horses suck wind.
Proper management is the best treatment for cribbing.
There are various ways people try to stop horses from wind-sucking. Some methods used to avoid the behavior, include the removal of anything that can be used to crib, applying chemicals to cribbing surfaces and using electric fences, cribbing straps, and muzzles.
Although these methods are effective, they don’t address the underlying problem. Often the stress increases and horses return to the behavior with more furor after they have been restricted.
Drugs have been successful in reducing and, in some cases, stopping cribbing altogether. However, it is expensive, and the medications must be administered routinely. The most effective treatment is proper management. Increased social contact, allow natural grazing, and increase the amount of time outside of a stall.
Below is a helpful YouTube video about horse cribbing.
Can cribbing kill a horse?
The health conditions associated with cribbing can become fatal. Horses that crib are prone to colic and other health problems. If you happen to be one of the lucky ones, it’s just an annoying habit – but if your horse falls on the unlucky side of things, then your horse can colic and die.
Does cribbing get horses high?
Some horses get high during cribbing because it releases endorphins which is a feel-good hormone. Once they relate this feeling to cribbing, they are often addicted, and this can lead to real trouble as it can cause health problems and expensive vet visits to ensure that there are no underlying issues.