In this article you’ll learn about cribbing, its causes, and some ways that horse owners manage this undesirable, though debatably harmless – behavior.
Cribbing is when a horse places its teeth on a solid object (like a piece of a stall or fence) and sucks air in through its mouth. The jury is out on why horses crib, but veterinary behaviorists and horse professionals have some theories, which we’ll explore later in this article.
Understanding why horses crib
veterinarians and horse behavior experts don’t completely understand why horses crib. Cribbing, or wind sucking, is a point of contention within the world of horse experts. Experts on split on whether it’s a stable vice (the result of confinement, stress, stall rest, or boredom) or something more like an addiction or mental health disorder in humans.
Veterinarians can’t even agree on whether windsucking is dangerous to a horse’s health or even if it can be corrected. The answers from one horse professional to another are buried, and sometimes they strongly disagree with one another – even specialists who study the behavior land on different sides of the argument, though there is solid evidence of a link with colic.
Research shows that “Concentrated feed diets have been shown to drastically increase the rate of the cribbing.”
Stable vices are behaviors that horses exhibit in a stall, usually due to boredom or anxiety, that are undesirable for some reason or another to horse owners and barn managers. Cribbing, along with chewing and weaving, is definitely one of the stable vices and, while it may not actually harm horses or be contagious to other horses, many business owners and clients within the horse world balk at allowing a horse that cribs into a stable – for fear that social learning might influence other horses to begin cribbing.
Despite this fear, over and over again, veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists observed that in a barn with dozens of horses, perhaps only one or two horses crib, with those horses have cribbed even without the influence of a horse known to crib? It’s almost impossible to know.
Is cribbing for horses a type of addiction?
Much debate, and a small amount of research, in recent years, has explored the possibility that cribbing, or when sucking, might be sort of the horse equivalent of addiction. A pleasurable behavior that releases chemicals in the brain that make horses feel better, and which prompt them to repeat the behavior to reexperience the positive effects- this theory is supported by a study which reduced cribbing behaviors in half of the test subjects when a medication was given that blocked this effect.
Some argue that cribbing might be more like a compulsion for horses – but since compulsions or something that people feel compelled to do even though they don’t want to, I don’t think that descriptor can be applied to a stable vice-like windsucking. To gain a better understanding, we should consider what happens emotionally and physically when a horse cribs.
What happens for horses when they crib?
When the horse places its teeth on a solid surface and sucks air (hence the nickname “when sucking), natural, pleasurable endorphins are released in its brain. For horses, cribbing is pleasurable – though experts aren’t exactly sure if this experience is pleasurable for all horses (which might explain why cribbing is not a behavior that spreads through barn as a contagious illness). Some horses may simply try it, and not like it.
For horses who try cribbing and find a pleasurable, however, they are likely to repeat the behavior- especially if they don’t have days filled with healthy, evolutionarily appropriate activities like socializing with other horses, grazing, or being exercised by riders. Horses stuck in stalls may have the free time to reinforce this behavior and entrench cribbing deeper and deeper into their behavior patterns.
This, it turns out, is exactly how horses learn in the wild. The principle we all use behind training is reinforcing behavior: whether through positive or negative reinforcement, it’s how we train horses (and, it turns out, how they train themselves.) Repetition of the pleasant experience, followed by a desire to repeat the pleasurable experience, produces repeated behavior. Thus, a habit of cribbing is created.
Why do only some horses crib?
Experts don’t totally understand what causes cribbing in one particular horse, but not others who experience the same environment, schedule, and lifestyle. There’s simply no way to understand why some horses crib and others don’t – just like how it’s impossible to judge why one human struggles with addiction and another doesn’t. Cribbing could be related to genetic predisposition, environmental circumstances, breed predisposition to cribbing, or a combination of these things along with other factors that we don’t yet understand.
Likely, cribbing is a way for anxious, bored, or stressed horses to cope- research indicates horses’ heart rates slow during cribbing. If a horse’s internal world is one of fear or mind-numbing boredom, cribbing may offer an escape – as might chewing, weaving, or other stable vices.
How to stop a horse from cribbing
There are a number of products that can be used on horses or the surfaces that they place their teeth on to crib, however, the effectiveness of these products is fairly low. While some horses can be broken of the habit if addressed early, for many horses cribbing becomes a lifelong issue. Early interventions in cribbing should address not just the behavior directly (through, for example, anti-cribbing callers or bitter spray on surfaces) but also consider the social-emotional lives of horses.
A horse that is only cribbed a few times is less likely to continue to reinforce the behavior if they have fewer opportunities – if they spend more time loose with a herd, grazing in a pasture, or busy with the work of conditioning for competition – a horse may be less likely to repeat the behavior and ingrain the pattern deeper in their behavior. Researchers have established that stall toys that involve licking or chewing lower cribbing rates slightly and horses crib significantly more frequently when fed a sweetened grain diet than when fed oats.
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