Controlling Cribbing in Horses
By Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB • Dec 19, 2013 • Article #17342
Photo: The Horse Staff
Q. There is a new 3-year-old gelding in my barn. He cribs and wears a collar; the collar seems awfully tight to me. A respected friend says that the other horses might pick up this habit from this horse. Is that true? And how can I work with this cribber so he can get rid of the collar?
A. I had given up on answering cribbing questions. It's probably the most common behavior problem for which owners seek help, and it's frustrating because not much changes cribbing and not much is new.
Sometimes the collar has to be very tight to inhibit cribbing effectively, and sometimes even a very tight collar has little effect. (Here in the hospital we have had a a case or two of horses referred for evaluation because they would periodically collapse. The end result of the evaluation was that the collapse we caused by very tight cribbing collars.)
Among animal welfare researchers studying oral and other stereotypies in horses and other species, there is growing concern that these stereotypies do serve a purpose in relieving stress or physical discomfort. They believe it might be more inhumane to try to inhibit the behavior physically than to let it go on.
On the issue of one horse learning to crib from another, horse behavior experts disagree. Some do believe it can be learned from another horse; the majority don't. My opinion is that if it is learned, it is a rare occurrence.
At New Bolton Center a few years ago, we worked on trying to find pharmacologic (medical) interventions for cribbing and other stereotypies in horses. Lots of non-cribbers were exposed to lots of cribbers during these studies. In fact, we have cribbers donated to our teaching herds so that at any time there are one or two with 24-hour-a-day exposure to non-cribbers. None of the non-cribbers here have started cribbing, despite plenty of exposure.
What can you do to try to reduce the cribbing in this animal? Unfortunately, probably not much. Despite all the money spent each year on devices, products, and procedures, it is very difficult to reduce cribbing significantly in an established cribber. I can't ever remember a case of cribbing that was cured, in the sense that it was eliminated once and for all.
One generally useful approach is to reduce grain in the diet. This is often a tough choice, especially if your cribber (like most) is thin to begin with. In many cribbers the grain seems to increase the amount of cribbing. So, getting your horse on mostly grass and hay might reduce the total time spent cribbing.
There is now an ongoing, aggressive research program in England to get at the root causes of and to prevent cribbing. Also in the United Kingdom, researchers are developing anti-cribbing feed formulations with additives, such as antacids, meant to reduce cribbing in established cribbers.
Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Understanding Your Horse's Behavior by author and equine behavior specialist Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB. The book is available from www.ExclusivelyEquine.com.