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

Last updated: February 22, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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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.

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.

Picture of a horse with a cribbing collar.

Why do horses chew on wood (crib)?

Horses that chew on wood are exhibiting a behavior known as “cribbing” or “wind-sucking.” This behavior involves the horse biting down on an object, such as a fence or a stall door, and then arching its neck and sucking in air.

There is no one clear reason why horses engage in cribbing behavior, but it is thought to be a form of coping mechanism or a response to stress, boredom, or discomfort. Some horses may begin cribbing due to a lack of forage, as the act of cribbing can release endorphins, which can help alleviate the discomfort associated with an empty stomach.

Other theories suggest that horses may crib as a way to self-soothe or relieve anxiety, similar to humans biting their nails or fidgeting. It’s also possible that some horses may crib due to dental problems or gastric ulcers, which can cause discomfort and pain.

Cribbing can be a difficult behavior to eliminate, and it can be damaging to the horse’s teeth and overall health. It’s important to provide horses with plenty of forage, exercise, and social interaction to reduce the likelihood of cribbing.

Some horses may also benefit from the use of specialized cribbing collars, which can discourage the behavior. If you’re concerned about your horse’s cribbing behavior, it’s always best to consult with a veterinarian or equine behaviorist.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Horses crib because of a lack of social contact.

Just like us, horses can sometimes get bored, and if you notice they start cribbing, it could be a sign that they are feeling stressed or restless. To help alleviate this behavior, I have found that providing more space for my horse to move around in or introducing other animals to their living environment can be effective.

For example, when I didn’t have other horses handy, I brought in dogs, goats, or cats as companions for my horse, and this has helped to curb the cribbing behavior and keep my horse content.

However, it doesn’t work for every horse. Despite having other animals around, I owned a horse in the past that cribbed even in a large pasture. He would stand in the same spot every day, grabbing the top board of a wooden fence with his teeth and arching his neck while sucking in air for hours on end.

It was a concerning behavior, and I had to try different strategies to alleviate it. 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.

When a horse is kept in a stall with limited social interaction, it tends to exhibit more cribbing behavior. However, introducing other horses to the stalled horse or increasing turnout time has been shown to decrease the horse’s stereotypical behavior.

  • A lack of foraging opportunities can cause cribbing.

One of the theories for why horses engage in cribbing is that it can be caused by a lack of foraging opportunities. Horses are naturally grazing animals, and in the wild, they spend most of their day eating small amounts of forage.

When horses are kept in stalls or paddocks, they may have limited access to forage, which can lead to boredom and frustration. Research has shown that horses that have limited access to forage, such as hay or grass, are more likely to engage in cribbing behavior.

Cribbing can be a way for horses to release endorphins, which can help alleviate the discomfort associated with an empty stomach. Providing horses with ample forage and opportunities to graze can help prevent cribbing behavior.

This can include providing hay throughout the day or allowing horses to graze on grass for longer periods of time. In some cases, horse owners may also choose to use slow-feeding hay nets or other enrichment activities to keep horses occupied and reduce the likelihood of cribbing.

  • 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 that 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 my horse Aunt Addie wearing a cribbing collar.
Aunt Addie wearing a cribbing collar.

Do some horse breeds crib more than others?

While research on horse breeds and cribbing behavior is limited, anecdotal evidence and some studies suggest that certain breeds, such as Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods, may be more prone to this behavior.

For instance, one study found that Thoroughbreds are three times more likely and Warmbloods are almost twice as likely to develop wind-sucking behavior. These breeds are often used in equine competitions such as racing, dressage, and showjumping, which may contribute to their higher risk of cribbing due to factors such as limited social contact and prolonged stabling.

Additionally, stallions are more likely to crib than mares, possibly due to isolation and other management practices related to breeding. However, it’s important to note that there are always exceptions, and cribbing can occur in any breed.

Other factors that can increase the likelihood of cribbing include management practices, such as limited access to forage, prolonged periods of stabling, or stressful situations, such as competition or transportation.

If you’re considering purchasing a horse and are concerned about cribbing behavior, it’s always a good idea to talk to the breeder or seller and ask about the horse’s behavior history. It’s also important to provide horses with ample forage, social interaction, and opportunities to graze and move around to help prevent this behavior from developing or escalating.

As a horse owner, I’m aware that ongoing studies are being conducted to better understand why horses engage in cribbing behavior. Researchers are looking into the roles of genetics, management, and breeds to shed light on this issue. However, I have yet to identify a clear pattern myself.

For instance, I have eight horses in training, and they are all from similar pedigrees and are treated equally. However, one of my horses has recently started cribbing, and I want to prevent it from becoming a chronic issue.

To address this behavior, I’ve increased the horse’s outside time and put toys in her stall to reduce boredom. It’s important to take proactive steps to address cribbing behavior as early as possible to prevent it from becoming a more significant issue.

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 increased the amount of time outside of a stall.

Below is a helpful YouTube video about horse cribbing.

Picture of our two year old thoroughbred.


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 dangerous because wind-sucking can draw in dirt and other things that could lead to infection.

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Miles Henry