Controlling Cribbing

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? via e-mail

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 effectively inhibit cribbing, and sometimes even a very tight collar has little effect. (We have had a case or two here in the hospital of horses referred for evaluation of periodic collapse that in the end were attributed to 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 physically inhibit the behavior 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 that is spent each year on devices, products, and procedures, it is very difficult to significantly reduce cribbing 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, if you can get your horse on mostly grass and hay, it might reduce the total time spent cribbing.

There is now an ongoing aggressive research program in England to get at the root causes and to prevent cribbing. Also in the United Kingdom, people are developing anti-cribbing feed formulations with additives, such as antacids, meant to reduce cribbing in established cribbers.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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