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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Stable Vices: When Horses Become Compulsive

I’d like to talk about a distinct behavior seen in some horses called cribbing. Many horse people have heard of it even if they’ve never seen it themselves. Cribbers are horses that exhibit a particular stable vice, also called a stereotypic behavior. Such a behavior is defined as repetitive and has no obvious function; it can be classified as a compulsive behavior.

Cribbing is a specific type of stable vice where the horse presses down with his incisors on a firm surface, such as a fence post, stall door, or gate. With the incisors on this surface, the horse will press down and back, arching his neck and gulping in air, and making a distinct belching noise. This behavior is not only destructive to barns and fences, but also causes excessive wear on the horse’s incisors. Cribbing may also be linked to gastric ulcers and certain types of colic, but this has not been conclusively proven in studies.

So, why would a horse exhibit such bizarre behavior? Veterinary behaviorists agree that the main root cause of such stereotypic behavior is lack of appropriate physical, mental, and social stimulation. Chiefly, this comes down to how we house our horses.

Thinking back to the way horses evolved as a prey species, combined with the fact that mustangs, feral horses, and horses housed in a “natural” manner do not exhibit such behaviors, it’s not surprising that a common way horses are kept, namely in a stall and fed distinct meals of high concentrate carbohydrates, leads to innate stressors on the horse’s psyche, resulting in behavioral problems. Horses are meant to graze upwards of sixteen hours a day, walking along pastures and, as herd animals, socializing with others of their species. Take away these natural elements and you are asking for trouble.

Curing a cribbing horse is often unsuccessful. This compulsive behavior is so entrenched that even putting a cribbing horse out on pasture 24/7 usually does not rid him of this action. Frustratingly, cribbers are very good at finding something to crib on. There are cribbing “collars” on the market that attach around the horse’s throat. These collars prevent the horse from tensing his neck muscles when gulping for air during cribbing behavior. This physical deterrent sometimes helps, but there are some horses that crib despite the collar. For this reason, some boarding stables are unwilling to house a horse that is known to crib.

By far, prevention of such behaviors is worth way more than any “cure.” Raising horses so that they have access to pasture, herd interaction, and plenty of roughage is key to preventing compulsive behaviors. If pasture use and herd interaction are limited, providing ample hay to allow for a simulated grazing schedule will help. Although grain is needed for growing horses and those with intensive training schedules such as racehorses or other competitive athletes, most other adult horses don’t need the “hot” energy such diets provide. In the end, the closer to nature we can keep our horses, the healthier they are.

Dr. Anna O’Brien

Image: Thinkstock

Comments  6

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  • Medication?
    06/07/2013 03:19pm

    Have they tried serotonin reuptake inhibitors for this. I know they are used in some dogs with acral lick and, of course, in people with compulsive problems.

  • 06/07/2013 09:58pm

    Good question. There has been some research on this sort of pharmaceutical to help with these behavioral problems in horses. The problem seems to be dosage: such drugs in horses seem to require almost constant-rate infusions, something that is not at all practical in a barn environment. So, until researchers can figure out a formulation that will work, nothing is out there on the market.

  • Cribbing
    06/07/2013 08:21pm

    Horses do not belong in stalls 24/7. Personally I don't thing they belong in stalls at all.

    My 2 horses and 2 donks do just fine in any type of weather with just a run-in.

    Thank you for the article as a reminder of one of the behaviors that can develop when prey (and extremely social) animals are confined.

  • Ack!
    06/07/2013 09:00pm

    That sounds absolutely awful. It's obvious why the gnawing would be bad, but are there any health problems associated with the gulping of air and "belching"?

  • 06/07/2013 10:04pm

    It used to be thought that cribbing was associated with a certain type of colic because it was assumed that the cribbing horse was swallowing a bunch of air every time he cribbed and this was causing problems. However, studies done with advanced imaging techniques have shown that not all cribbers swallow air. There have also been studies that have shown no real association between colic and cribbing. The problem is that cribbing is associated with stress. And stress can be associated with ulcers and other digestive problems, so the two are sort of confounding, making it hard to make conclusions and links between cribbing and colic. So, I'm not sure I really answered your question because to a certain extent, the jury is still out on that one :)

  • Cribbing
    06/10/2013 06:25pm

    I owned and showed horses for thirty years, beginning in my early teens. I had a number of horses and only one learned to crib. I got him when he was two-and-a-half; he was an Arab/Warmblood cross and strikingly beautiful. I kept him in an indoor/outdoor stall (large stall; 12x16 and a decent paddock) and he had regular turnout as well as daily handling and exercise. I fed a combination of alfalfa and grass or oat hay, plus a small amount of grain. I fed 3 times a day so he nearly always had something to munch.
    Despite my best efforts, this horse developed (or tried to develop) every bad habit known to man. If he did not wish to work he would sull up and balk. If that failed he would rear. If that failed, he might finally agree to go forward for a while but be prepared to start over the next day! On trail rides, I made it a policy to return to the barn a from different ways, always trotted going away from home and walked back and yet he still became barn sour. (I cannot count the rides I had to back him home.) And, even with regular activity, the horse managed to figure out how to crib.
    I kept him until he was six. We did win some awards and I even won an adult equitation high point on him...praying through every class. I finally called it quits one year at regional championships, when he went backwards and sideways down barn aisles for two hours, finally agreed to go into the arena, and then spent another 45 minutes rearing.
    The horse had through vet checks, was perfectly sound, had a variety of activities (trail riding, dressage, some pleasure-type classes, even Western trail class obstacles) got a day or two off each week and was never drilled when he was at all agreeable. (I have always tried to keep work sessions short and productive.) We never understood why he was like this and it was really heart-breaking. Finally we decided it was genetic. His mother, a warmblood who did eventing, was a good-tempered mare who would occasionally quit if she felt over-faced. His sire was an Arab stallion with a tendency to rear if he did not wish to work...usually he was in driving classes but I saw him compete under saddle and he reared and reared until they were able to force him behind another horse and then he followed that animal into the ring. This was not an unusual behavior for him. So, my horse could sull up and rear...and had the Arab endurance to keep it up almost indefinitly.
    Cribbing is nasty and I do agree that it is often a product of anxiety and boredom. Prevention is the only way to go. Sometimes, however, even when you follow all the rules, things still go wrong!

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