Cribbing: It sucks

Horse CribbingCribbing (or crib biting) is a vice that can make a horse an outcast in the barn. Some barn policies will not allow cribbers to board due to worries about the slow, but inevitable destruction of fences and stalls and the fear that a cribber will “teach” the other horses stabled near him to crib, too. Sometimes the offending horse is ostracized to an older barn, the owner, ever-grateful, has a collection of boards and nails to repair her steed’s stall. She googles the internet for solutions, a new cribbing strap or  anti-chew concoction, so often that ads for crib notes for Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot appear in the her Gmail side bar. Nothing ever helps, so she keeps hand sewing new fleece covers for the cribbing strap and avoiding eye contact with the equine dentist who shakes his head at the increasingly nubby incisors.

Cribbing is an equine stereotypic, or repetitive, behavior like weaving, stall walking, or tooth grinding. When a horse cribs, he generally braces his incisors against a solid surface, pulls backs, and sucks air in with characteristic grunt. Some horses with a real talent for the occupation can even crib on a cross tie rope. The negative cloud surrounding a horse that cribs probably results from centuries of collective knowledge and superstition in the horse world. Some of it true, and most of it still being researched by the veterinary community.

This series of blogs on cribbing will sort out the fact from the fiction about cribbing by looking at the latest research in the field.

What We Know About Cribbing

  • It is restricted to the horse species. It is rare in donkeys and mules and unheard of in zebras.
  • It is restricted to the domesticated horse. Wild, free-ranging horses do not crib.
  • The cause is multi-factorial: genetics, brain chemistry, and environment are involved.
  • The best course of action is managing the horse’s food and environment.

o   Feeding concentrated grains increases the behavior.

o   Increasing the amount of roughage in the diet can prevent or  decrease cribbing.

o   Natural weaning decreases the risk of a young horse becoming a cribber.

o   Buddying horses or providing social contact in the same enclosure can prevent or reduce cribbing.

What We Don’t Know About Cribbing

  • Thoroughbreds and warmbloods may be at higher risk than other breeds.
  • Horses probably do not “teach” other horses to crib.
  • Cribbing straps increase the behavior when removed.
  • how to cure it
  • if pharmaceuticals are effective in treating it
  • if certain breeds are predisposed to it
  • if it gives the horse an endorphin “rush”
  • whether it causes colic

Check back in this space for more on the causes, management, and side effects of cribbing.

Houpt, K. A. “Motivation for cribbing by horses.” Animal Welfare-The UFAW Journal 21.1 (2012): 1.

Wickens, Carissa L., and Camie R. Heleski. “Crib-biting behavior in horses: A review.” Applied animal behaviour science 128.1 (2010): 1-9.



    1. I’m going to cover that in a future post. Researchers can safely call cribbing a compulsive behavior, but not obsessive, since that would mean they could obsess, which they can’t, “because obsessions involve recurrent, intrusive thoughts, a capability that horses are not known to possess.” Serotonin is the brain chemical involved in compulsive behaviors, and pharmaceuticals in the category of serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been shown to help, but it isn’t know if the drug targets and affects the serotonergic system or just has a sedative effect.

      Right now, research into the release of endorphin is decidedly mixed. Some studies say “yay,” some “nay,” and some neutral.


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