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Why Do Horses Crib (Bite) on Wood? the Answer Isn’t Simple

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On our way to school, we would pass a horse biting the top of a wood fence post. The horse would be there every morning. Looking back on that makes me wonder why 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.

Picture of a horse with a cribbing collar.

What is cribbing?

The first time you see a horse cribbing, you’ll probably find it a funny-looking behavior. The horse grabs hold of a solid object like a fence post or stall door with its teeth, then arches its neck and pulls back, making a grunting noise.

Cribbing can be harmful to the horse’s teeth and muscles, but not always. However, cribbing does damage wooden fences and stall boards, and it can also be a nuisance to other horses.

Cribbing is generally considered a bad habit, and many owners try to discourage their horses from doing it. However, cribbing is also an addictive behavior, and some horses become so hooked on cribbing that they cannot stop without professional help.

If you own a horse with a cribbing habit, the best thing you can do is provide plenty of opportunities for the horse to exercise and explore its environment. This will help keep the horse’s mind off cribbing and allow it to focus on more positive activities.

Why do horses chew on wood (crib)?

Even horses get bored sometimes. When they’re confined to small spaces, they can start to get frustrated. One way they relieve this frustration is by cribbing. Cribbing is when a horse chews on wood, usually the wood of its stall or fence boards.

Some people think that cribbing is a bad habit, but for horses, it’s just a way to relieve boredom and frustration. If you have a horse that cribs, try giving them more space to roam.

However, I’ve owned horses that cribbed in a large pasture. This animal stood in the same spot every day and grabbed the top board of a wooden fence with his teeth, arched his neck, and sucked in air for hours.

So, you may have to try other things, like providing them with more toys or objects to play with. Whatever you do, don’t punish your horse for cribbing. It’s not their fault they’re bored – it’s yours.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Horses crib because of a lack of social contact.

Cribbing is the act of a horse using its 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 decrease 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.

Picture of our two year old thoroughbred.

Do some horse breeds crib more than others?

Certain breeds of horses are more likely to latch onto a fixed object with their teeth and draw in air more 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 stalls, 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. However, I don’t see a pattern. For example, we have eight horses in training, and they are all similarly bred and treated the same.

One just started, the horse is a good animal, and we want to make sure that this does not become chronic, so we’re giving her more outside time and putting toys in her stall to reduce boredom.

Picture of a horse herd. Horses crib out of boredom, so socializing helps.

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 successfully reduced and, in some cases, stopped 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.

FAQ

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.

What is wind sucking in mares?

Wind sucking is a condition that affects female horses and is called pneumovagina. It is caused when air gets sucked into a mare’s vagina, and oftentimes noise can be heard when the horse runs. This can be a danger because wind-sucking can draw in dirt and other things that could lead to infection.

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