The Truth About Cribbing

If you know me, then you know my horse is a cribber. I didn’t know hardly anything about cribbing before I got Z. Since owning a cribber, I see there is a wide range of opinions on the matter- specifically coming from those who don’t own cribbers or have much experience with them. I want to get down to the bottom of things, and make the truth about cribbing clear- coming straight from evidence-based research and the owners of horses that do so!

What Cribbing Is and Isn’t

Cribbing is when a horse bites down onto a surface (typically a fence or stall), pulls back with their neck arched, and sucks in air. It releases endorphins, which give the horse a stress relief. It is more commonly known to give horses a “high”, but researchers are saying it is not so simple. Windsucking is the same act, but without the horse biting down onto a surface. Cribbing is not the same as wood chewing or gnawing. It is a bad habit, that has to proven to be dangerous, but is also manageable. Despite many opinions on the matter, cribbing is not a habit learned from other horses. Cribbing has several underlying causes, but copying another horse is not one of them.

So Why Do Horses Crib?

Cribbing is a boredom and stress-related habit.

  • Trauma and/or severe stress can trigger cribbing as a coping mechanism. It is believed that Z was taken from his mother too soon, as he is constantly sucking on things, mimicking nursing. He will suck on lead ropes, the stall, even my arms and hands! This early life trauma could be a contributing factor to his cribbing habit.

 

  • Horses who are kept in stalls too often with little turnout can easily pick up cribbing out of boredom and stress from the confinement. Before I bought Z, he was kept at a barn with ZERO turn out for horses in training or for sale. They would get out once per day to be ridden or lunged and that was it. Not only is the lack of turn out time stressful for horses, but it limits their natural forage diet. This can cause gastric ulcers and increase risk of colic. Gastric ulcers are very painful, therefore causing more stress and further contributing to the cribbing.

 

  • Horses DO NOT crib because they learned how from another horse in the barn. This is an opinion that many people have, but it is not backed by facts or evidence. In fact, there is evidence of the opposite.

“There are many non-cribbing horses kept in stalls next to cribbing horses who don’t learn this behavior,” says Amelia S. Munsterman, DVM, PhD, DACVS, DACVECC, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Julia D. Albright, MA, DVM, and her colleagues at Cornell University surveyed horse owners about cribbing. Although 49% of owners thought cribbing was a learned behavior, only 1% of cribbers actually started cribbing after exposure to another cribber.

“Cribbing is complicated and probably caused by many factors,” said Albright. “These horses aren’t ‘bad,’ and we should stop physically and verbally punishing, shocking, and isolating them. For the health of the cribbers (and barn), the behavior should probably be stemmed with a cribbing collar, a diet low in concentrates and high in roughage, and pasture time. These horses have a true neurologic pathology, comparable to obsessive compulsive behaviors in humans,” she said.

I have had Z for almost 2 years and he has been at 4 different barns in that time. He has been stalled and turned out with various populations of horses, who would see him attempt to crib daily. Never once did any of them start to try to mimic the behavior and pick up the habit. It’s simply not true.

Interestingly enough, some research points to genetic dispositions to cribbing. A study showed thoroughbreds 13% more likely to develop the cribbing habit and quarter horses and warmbloods 5% more likely.

Hear from other Owners of Cribbers

I asked other owners of cribbers for their input on cribbing based on their firsthand experience. Here is what they had to say.

What has it been like for you to own a cribber?

Elysia @crosspolequeen: I wasn’t entirely certain what I was getting myself into, but it actually has been very low maintenance. I’m proud of his abilities despite this. 

Jamie @jamie.blatz: I would say it was a bit stressful at first because I didn’t know much about them, but after doing some research and talking to my vet, we’ve found a way to manage him now.

Kelly @wine_dine_and_pones: It’s frustrating at times because I know Finn shouldn’t crib, but I also know that if I prevent him completely from cribbing he will get really stressed out and cause himself to colic. Finn’s cribbing can be managed though. 

Kinsley @kinsleymarie__: Azzie is the first horse I purchased on my own. I have heard of cribbing horses and seen a couple. Most notably an OTTB named Simon who is far worse than Azriel is. And I spent a few months watching Simon’s habit and learning about prevention. So I at least had an idea of what exactly cribbing entailed. But to say owning a cribbing horse is easy is a bit of an exaggeration. It is something that definitely requires monitoring and it is not a cheap habit. Cribbing collars can be expensive and often rub hair off in areas even when sheepskin is placed for protection. At my barn, we also chose to metal plate all of the surfaces prone to cribbing. That way the barn wasn’t being chewed apart and Azriel’s teeth would be protected, as he cannot grip onto smooth stainless steel. 

Stephanie @sephasaur: For me, it’s mainly just been a source of worry. I’ve only owned my horse, Tex, since December and nothing bad has happened. But I definitely worry about the possibility of colic/weight loss. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes he’s more interested in trying to crib than eating. 

Would you discourage others from looking at a horse to buy if it is a cribber?

Jamie @jamie.blatz: Absolutely not. I advise everyone to do their own research, discuss it with their vets, and know what they’re getting into. But I would never write a horse off just because of cribbing. 

Elysia @crosspolequeen: Certainly not. This is an unproven and outdated belief that cribbers do not make good horses!

Kelly @wine_dine_and_pones: To someone looking to buy a horse, I believe cribbing can be a risk factor, but there are different levels of cribbers, some are worse than others. Personally, I don’t think cribbing should be the only thing keeping you from purchasing a horse. Cribbing can be managed, but every horse is different so I believe it depends on each specific horse. 

Kinsley @kinsleymarie__: No. To overlook a horse for a habit that they cannot control isn’t fair honestly. There are some horses who are absolutely amazing athletes that crib. Some horses (particularly Thoroughbreds) are lined genetically and are more prone to cribbing. Therefore, they are more likely to pick up the habit just because it runs in their family tree. And although cribbing isn’t “curable” it is definitely preventable. As long as the horse is monitored and cared for properly, there really is no issue with owning a cribber. I think it boils down to a few things. If you are looking at horses that crib, do your research. Learn as much as you can. It definitely won’t hurt to be as educated about it as possible. And know that it will take a few extra dollars to help prevent the cribbing by investing in a collar or muzzle. Finally, be prepared for the health risks that accompany a horse that cribs, as they are at a higher risk to colic. 

Stephanie @sephasaur: I wouldn’t necessarily discourage it. If you’re looking at two horses that you like equally and one is a cribber, I’d say pick the other. I think Tex is the best boy in the entire world, even though he cribs. No way would I ever trade him for a horse that doesn’t crib. 

How do you manage your horse’s cribbing?

Elysia @crosspolequeen: Miracle collar and redirecting his attention. I see it as more like a nervous tick… it’s especially important to not have any wood around and to let him graze and be outside as much as he wants. 

Jamie @jamie.blatz: At this time, we use Cribox to keep him away from anything we don’t want to be ruined. He has free choice hay in a slow feeder net, lives only in a paddock, never stalled, and gets daily turnout in pasture. Other than that, we don’t restrict him because it stresses him out and increases his risk of colic. 

Kelly @wine_dine_and_pones: I have Finn in a French cribbing collar. (Dover and Smartpak both sell it.) Finn used to be in a miracle collar before I purchased him, but it had caused really bad rubs so I switched him to the French collar instead. He will also wear a grazing muzzle during his turnout to keep him from messing up the boards!

Kinsley @kinsleymarie__: Metal plated stall surfaces and a cribbing collar

Stephanie @sephasaur: I just use a nutcracker collar, but it doesn’t always help. I’ve tried selenium supplements, but that hasn’t worked. 

Do you know how your horse started cribbing?

Elysia @crosspolequeen: I was told that it was likely due to him being separated from his mother at a young age as a racehorse. 

Jamie @jamie.blatz: We don’t know exactly what started it. He’s an OTTB that was passed around, so my guess was it started during his career and is something he’s held onto. He did come to us with ulcers. Once those were treated, we noticed he did slow down on how much he cribs. 

Kelly @wine_dine_and_pones: Finn’s previous owners told us that he has pretty much cribbed for much of his life! His mother wouldn’t let him nurse so he has to be bottle fed so they believed that could have been part of why he started cribbing. 

Kinsley @kinsleymarie__: Cribbing is common in many Thoroughbreds. It can be a driven quality that was inherited or a later learned behavior. Azriel cribs for enjoyment. As a racehorse, he was stuck in a stall for hours and I’m guessing he resorted to cribbing. But his favorite time to crib is when he is eating. It’s like having his “glass of wine” with his dinner to put it in a human analogy.

Stephanie @sephasaur: I have no idea. Like I said, I haven’t had him very long. He is an OTTB, so came off the track, went through a couple different homes, and was ultimately rescued. So, unfortunately, there is no way to know when he started cribbing. 

What is something important you would like people to know about cribbing?

Elysia @crosspolequeen: I would like people to know that often cribbing has nothing to do with their performance. As long as it is managed and understood as a mental health issue and treated as such. You can not be a lazy owner or buyer, as they do require extra attention. But they are just as worthy as any other horse to put time and training into them!

Jamie @jamie.blatz: I think it’s important for people to know cribbing is rarely a learned behavior. It almost always stems from something, whether it’s ulcers, gastric upset, extreme stress, diet, or anxiety. Before just trying to stop the behavior, really try to find the reason why they’re cribbing and treat it at the source. Once you find the “why”, you can work with your vet or an equine professional to come up with the best solution for your horse. 

Kelly @wine_dine_and_pones: Cribbing is bad, but it’s not the end of the world! It is manageable and you just need to find what works best specifically for your horse. 🙂

Kinsley @kinsleymarie__: It cannot be corrected. You cannot “untrain” or retrain this behavior. It is a physiological drive within the horse’s brain that causes him to crib. It is similar to a severe addiction to a drug. Reprimanding your horse by scolding him etc, will only make the problem worse, especially in cases where anxiety drives the horse’s urge to crib. 

Stephanie @sephasaur: I would say people should know it’s not the worst thing that could happen. Every horse has something. I don’t think the perfect horse with absolutely no vices or issues exists. Cribbing can be managed depending on the horse, and I would never rule out all horses that crib if I was shopping for a new horse. 


 

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Hannah + Z


Resources

Check these out for some more reading on the research behind cribbing!

https://equusmagazine.com/behavior/thinking-about-cribbing

https://thehorse.com/153190/cribbing-not-a-learned-behavior-researchers-say/

Cribbing: Not Always Just a Bad Habit

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