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All About Cribbing

Do you have a cribber in your barn?  Are your stalls chewed down to studs and beyond?  Have you ever wondered what is going through your horse’s head when he’s doing this behavior?  The exact etiology of cribbing behavior has yet to be determined, however, most equine researchers agree that the cause is multifactorial. There have been several studies conducted to investigate the potential mechanism of origin, and there are a handful of associations between environmental or physical events and the development of cribbing behavior.  Some of these studies point to altered neuroendocrine physiology and brain function while others focus on environmental concerns such as time spent in pasture and types of feed.  Whatever the emanating reason, cribbing is a concern to horse owners that deserves more time and understanding.

Horses exhibiting cribbing behavior anchor their top incisor teeth on a fixed object (i.e. fence, stall, or building structures), pull backward, contract the neck muscles, and draw air into the cranial esophagus emitting an audible grunt (Heleski, Wickens 2010).  Cribbing is a stereotypic behavior that has been linked to environments that are not meeting a horse’s needs, be it physical or mental.  Stereotypies are defined as constant, repetitive behaviors that have no apparent goal or function.  Usually a stereotypic behavior develops when an animal is unable to execute a highly desired pattern such as feeding behavior, or when it cannot escape or avoid stressful/fearful situations.  Another stereotypic developing environment is when an animal is confined or socially isolated.  When horses do not have a way to express themselves or occupy their time they find another way to distract themselves, and this is when stereotypic behaviors emerge.

It has been found that some horses are more at risk than others in developing stereotypic behaviors like cribbing.  Thoroughbred and Warmblood breeds have a higher predisposition (as much as 3-5 times more) when compared to other breeds.  Male horses, especially stallions, are also at greater risk as compared to mares.  There is also a link to the potential of a genetic predisposition especially in certain Thoroughbred lines.  Some physiologic developmental factors include lower levels of serotonin, presence of gastric ulcerations, and aberrant dopamine pathways in the basal ganglia.  Confounding to these physical factors are those found within the environment and management styles of the horse.  The major management factors that have been associated with an increased risk of cribbing include feeding a high concentrate feed with limited access to forage, and individually housing horses with limited free movement and little social interaction.  

Here you can see the correlation of why some horses may be predisposed to developing stereotypic behavior.  For instance, Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods are often used for competitive disciplines for which they are stalled regularly with limited turnout and are fed high concentrate diets to supply ample nutrition for the greater amount of work performed.  Also, as to why stallions may be more susceptible is because they are often sequestered with little to no social interaction, and they are often in smaller paddocks that limit free movement.  That is why all factors must be taken into consideration so detection can be made early and appropriate management changes can be made.

It is easy to see that most of these factors have to do with stress of some kind.  Be it the stress of the demand for high levels of work, the stress of being confined with no outlet, or the stress of no social interaction for an animal that is gregarious and communal in its natural setting.  In more than one study it was found that during bouts of cribbing a horse’s heart rate and plasma cortisol (stress hormone) levels were lowered while their nociceptive (pain) threshold was elevated.  Indicating this stereotypic behavior may serve as a coping mechanism to reduce stress or to provide the animal with some form of control over its environment (Heleski, Wickens 2010).  This behavior has not been documented in wild free-roaming horses, but is observed in domestic and captive wild horses.  Because of this, it has to be determined that we as owners somehow contribute to this behavior, and therefore, it is our responsibility to detect the cause and find a solution.

Many owners try to physically prevent their horses from cribbing by applying an external factor.  These include cribbing collars, which apply pressure in the throatlatch area to try to prevent arching of the neck and windsucking, application of repellants or electrical wire for aversion therapy, or use of pharmacologic agents.  There have also been cases of owners taking it to the extreme of surgical intervention with the removal of the omohyoideus and sternothyrohyoideus muscles and transection of the accessory nerves.  None of these, however, address the underlying cause of the behavior and may well infringed upon equine welfare.  It is also unwise to follow the popular thought that horses who crib need to do so for supposed mental or physical satisfaction. Besides the damage to your barn, cribbing has been associated with some health concerns for your horse such as unthriftiness (weight loss and poor condition), excessive tooth wear, and a specific form of colic called epiploic foramen entrapment.  This is why proper management must be evaluated, and specific changes be made to help your horse.
The first place to start with handling a horse that cribs is to address daily maintenance changes that can be made.  Increase opportunities for your horse to engage in natural foraging, or if you don’t have the land space to do this, provide your horse’s hay in a slow-feeder that will stimulate a more natural way to “graze” throughout the day.  Horses were designed to forage and graze all day, and as such their stomachs produce a lot of acid to aid in digestion.  When not allowed to graze continuously, acid builds in your horse’s stomach and can lead to ulcerations. 
A slow feeder or ample graze time can help with this.  Increased access to forage also keeps your horse busy and engaged which will deter him from seeking out stereotypic behavior.  If you feed your horse grain be sure to keep to a constant feeding time schedule.  Feeding time is a highly stimulating event for your horse, and if he is unsure as to when that next event will occur it can lead to him becoming anxious/stressed, and then seeking the coping mechanism of cribbing.  Next, allow ample time for your horse to be outside in a large area where he has plenty of freedom for movement.  Horses were not designed to spend 23 hours a day in a 12’x12’ box.  While he is out and about let your horse have a friend or two to frolic and play with.  Horses are very social creatures and crave that interaction.  Social isolation is detrimental to the mental health of your horse, and can lead to serious compulsive or stereotypic behaviors.

We have seen chronic cribbers reduce and eliminate their stereotypic behaviors after their daily management was changed to suit their needs.  It may take some time to find the underlying factors leading to these behaviors and address them accordingly one by one.  However, our equine partners do a lot for us and as their caretakers it is our responsibility to help them when we can.  Take this information to increase your awareness on how routine management can affect the behavior and welfare of horses.  If you have further questions regarding what you can do to help your horse with cribbing or any other stereotypic behavior, Dr. Kyla and Dr. Maya would be happy to help answer those questions.  For a more detailed look into cribbing you can read the full review this blog was based on by clicking the link below.

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