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Why Do Horses Crib? Examining a Unique Equine Behavior

Last updated: February 27, 2024

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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Cribbing, a distinctive behavior where horses bite on stable objects and inhale air, reveals much more than a mere equine quirk; it’s a critical indicator of their mental and emotional state. This compulsive action often signals stress or discomfort, underscoring the importance of understanding equine care.

Drawing from my extensive experience in managing a stable of horses, including one that exhibits this behavior, I’ve delved deeply into the mystery of cribbing, an exploration essential for anyone dedicated to providing the highest level of care for their horses. Join me as we unravel the complexities behind this age-old question in equine circles: Why do horses crib?

Picture of a horse cribbing on a wooden post.
This horse is cribbing on a wooden post. Source: Rhett Maxwell, CC BY 2.0

Why Horses Crib.

Understanding why horses crib is crucial for effective intervention and care. Let’s examine the key factors driving this challenging equine behavior.

Exploring the Reasons Behind Cribbing

  • Psychological and Physiological Factors
    • Stress and Anxiety: Horses may crib to cope with stress or anxiety, similar to how humans might bite their nails.
    • Endorphin Release: Cribbing can trigger the release of endorphins, providing a sense of relief or pleasure.
    • Boredom: Limited stimulation in their environment can lead horses to develop cribbing as a way to occupy themselves.
  • Environmental and Management Factors
    • Confinement: Horses kept in stalls for extended periods are more prone to cribbing due to restricted movement.
    • Feeding Practices: Diets high in concentrates and low in forage can contribute to the development of cribbing.
    • Lack of Social Interaction: Limited interaction with other horses can lead to behavioral issues like cribbing.
  • Genetic Predispositions and Breed-Specific Tendencies
    • Inherited Trait: Some horses may be genetically predisposed to cribbing, passed down from their parents.
    • Breed-Specific: Certain breeds, like Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods, are observed to crib more frequently than others.
Picture of a horse cribbing on a wooden fence.
Horse cribbing. Source: Dee.lite, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Impact of Cribbing on Horse Health

Cribbing is not just a behavioral issue; it has significant impacts on both the physical and mental health of horses. Here’s a closer look:

Understanding the Health Implications of Cribbing

  • Physical Health Consequences
    • Dental Issues: Constant biting on hard objects can lead to abnormal tooth wear and dental problems.
    • Weight Loss: Cribbing can interfere with normal eating patterns, potentially causing weight loss.
    • Gastrointestinal Problems: The air intake from cribbing may increase the risk of colic and other digestive issues.
  • Mental Health and Well-being
    • Stress Relief: Cribbing can be a coping mechanism for stress, offering temporary relief.
    • Behavioral Implications: It may indicate underlying mental health issues, such as anxiety or boredom.
Picture of a horse with a cribbing collar.
A horse wearing a cribbing collar.

Managing and Mitigating Cribbing

Effective management of cribbing involves a combination of environmental, dietary, and equipment-based strategies. Let’s explore these approaches:

  • Environmental Modifications
    • Enhancing Living Conditions: Improving stable conditions, increasing turnout time, and providing mental stimulation can significantly reduce stress-induced cribbing.
  • Dietary Management
    • Diet Adjustments: Incorporating more forage and reducing concentrates in the diet can help decrease the frequency of cribbing behaviors.
  • Use of Tools and Equipment
    • Cribbing Collars and Interventions: While these can deter cribbing, it’s important to weigh their benefits against the potential discomfort or stress they may cause the horse.

Decoding Horse Cribbing Behavior: A Visual Guide

Explore horse cribbing with this insightful YouTube video. Discover valuable insights and practical tips to better understand and address this equine behavior.

YouTube video
Video explaining why horses crib.

Expert Insights and Case Studies

Gaining insights from experts and real-world cases is invaluable in understanding and managing cribbing. Here’s a summary:

Research Studies on Cribbing

  • In “Motivation for Cribbing by Horses” by K.A. Houpt, the study compares horses’ cribbing motivation to their desire for food, revealing similar effort levels. It suggests that cribbing is a high-demand behavior and that restricting it could raise welfare concerns. Read more.
  • The study “A preliminary answer to the question of whether cribbing causes salivary secretion” investigates if cribbing in horses increases saliva to reduce gastric acidity. Conducted on two horses, it found no significant saliva increase during cribbing, challenging the idea that cribbing helps manage gastric ulcers. Read the full article here.

Expert Opinions

  • Expert Opinions on Cribbing
    • “With stereotypies in general, and cribbing in particular, no matter what people have tried, this is a difficult behavior to effectively stop once a horse becomes habituated to it,” says Carissa Wickens, PhD, extension specialist at the University of Florida.
    • Behaviorist Insights: Focus on environmental enrichment and stress reduction as key strategies in managing cribbing.

Case Studies

  • Case 1: I decided to extend my young Thoroughbred’s daily pasture time with other horses because of her history of cribbing. After just a few months, I started noticing a remarkable improvement in her cribbing habit.
  • Case 2: I have a four-year-old gelding, and I increased his hay ration and introduced a large ball to combat his boredom while he was in a stall. The combination of these changes appeared to have a positive effect in reducing his cribbing behavior.
Picture of a grazing in a pasture with other horses.  Why do horses crib? Boredom or lack of socialization are issues.
Pasture time can reduce stress and may help prevent cribbing in some horses.

FAQs About Horses and Cribbing.

What is cribbing in horses?

Cribbing is a repetitive behavior where horses bite on stable objects and inhale air.

Why do horses crib?

Horses may crib due to various factors, including stress, boredom, genetics, and discomfort.

What are the health consequences of cribbing?

Cribbing can lead to dental issues, weight loss, gastrointestinal problems, and behavioral implications.

Can cribbing be prevented or managed?

Yes, management strategies involve environmental modifications, dietary adjustments, and the use of specific tools and equipment.

Is cribbing a form of self-medication for gastric ulcers?

Recent studies suggest that cribbing may not significantly increase salivary buffering of gastric acid, challenging this idea.

What breeds are more prone to cribbing?

Certain breeds, such as Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods, are observed to crib more frequently.

Can cribbing be completely eliminated in all horses?

Fully preventing cribbing may not be possible for every horse, but management can help reduce its frequency and impact.

Picture of a horse with overdeveloped neck muscle which is a result of cribbing.
Cribbing can lead to pronounced neck muscles, as seen in this horse.

Conclusion: Why Do Horses Crib

In conclusion, a comprehensive understanding of cribbing in horses is crucial for their well-being. This behavior is not merely a nuisance but a signal of deeper needs or discomfort that requires attentive care and management.

The Importance of Ongoing Education

  • Continuous learning and staying updated with the latest research in equine behavior and health are essential for horse owners and caretakers.
  • Regular consultation with equine health professionals ensures that cribbing is managed effectively and compassionately.

Additional Resources for Further Learning

  • The UC Davis Center for Equine Health article details cribbing in horses, a behavior causing health issues like weight loss and colic. It explores multifactorial causes, including stress and genetics, and discusses management through prevention, surgery, medication, and environmental changes. However, completely preventing cribbing may not always be feasible. Read the full article here.
  • Management Considerations for the Cribbing Horse” from Ohio State University Extension explores cribbing, repetitive behavior in horses involving air sucking and teeth gripping on objects. The article discusses potential causes like diet, genetics, and stress and notes health risks such as colic and ulcers. It emphasizes that prevention and management of cribbing can be challenging. Read the full article here.
  • The article “Understanding Crib-Biting Behavior in Horses,” published in the Journal of Veterinary Science & Technology, delves into crib-biting, compulsive behavior in equines. It explores possible causes, including genetics and stress, and discusses potential health implications. This comprehensive study provides valuable insights into understanding and addressing crib-biting behavior in horses. Read the full article here.
Picture of my horse Aunt Addie wearing a cribbing collar.
My horse, Aunt Addie wearing a cribbing collar.