Cribbing is a destructive stable vice. Over time the repetitive motion of a horse latching onto a wall, fence or stall door with its teeth can do a great deal of damage. When a horse cribs it grabs hold of a solid object with its upper incisors and then arches its neck until the muscles of its throat bulge. Often the horse will gulp a small amount of air, which causes a grunting sound. That specific habit-the audible gulping of air-is known as wind sucking. However, a horse that wind sucks also cribs, hence the two vices are generally lumped together and cribbing is thought of as the main culprit.
The compulsive cribber creates weakened paddock panels and wobbly gates. But it isn’t just the stable that suffers. Most cribbers are poor keepers. Since they’re pre-occupied with cribbing, they don’t graze or eat as much as they should. Ingesting too much air can predispose them to colic. Plus, their upper incisors become unnaturally worn, affecting their ability to graze and chew properly. Is there any way to curb the cribbing habit?
Unfortunately, cribbing is a compulsive behavior that includes some aspects of addiction. It’s believed that the monotonous action of cribbing releases endorphins in the horse’s brain, thereby producing a pleasurable sensation. Cribbing entices the horse to seek the same pay-off over and over again. How and why horses first begin to crib is a mystery. Despite popular opinion, studies have demonstrated that cribbing isn’t learned from another horse. It’s not true that one cribber in the stable will result in an entire herd of offenders. Instead it seems that cribbing begins as the result of boredom or stress often brought on by confinement. Studies have also shown that horses with ulcers crib to relieve the pain. Consult your veterinarian to rule out any medical causes.
There are two types of deterrents to reform a cribber. The most common option is a cribbing collar that’s buckled around the horse’s throatlatch. It doesn’t halt the habit of cribbing; it merely reduces the effect by restricting the expansion of the neck muscles. When buckled correctly, a cribbing collar should remain in place when the horse lowers its head, but be loose enough so that you can slip two fingers between it and the throatlatch. A more permanent alternative is the Modified Forssell’s Procedure. During this surgery the specific nerve and muscles used in cribbing are carefully clipped. Though the procedure is more costly than a simple collar, and it leaves the horse with some minor scarring, it has proven to be quite successful in curtailing cribbing altogether or reducing the intensity of the behavior.
There are some anti-cribbing methods that shouldn’t be tried. Cribbing collars that shock with electricity or jab with spring-loaded prongs look appropriately archaic and don’t work any better than the relatively benign plain leather collar. Inserting hog rings between the horse’s upper incisors is another bad idea. Supposedly the metal rings will prevent the horse from cribbing because they’ll act like a barrier between the teeth and the object. As an added bonus they cause pain and aggravation when the horse attempts to crib. Hog rings are not meant to be wedged between equine teeth. Some farmers insert them into a pig’s snout to prevent grubbing in the barnyard and burrowing under fence lines. But the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) has taken a stand against using hog rings to control cribbing in horses. An official statement refers to “visible damage to the gingiva (gum tissue)” and “the potential for persistent pain.”
There’s no denying that dealing with a cribber is exasperating. Yet this stable vice can be controlled and even alleviated by using methods that don’t cause harm to the horse.