Stable Vices (Book Excerpt)

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Understanding Basic Horse Care by Michael A. Ball, DVM. This book is available from

A stable vice is an undesirable behavior demonstrated by horses that are stall bound but also in pastures or small paddocks.  The most common stable vice is probably "wind sucking," commonly known as "cribbing," followed by wood chewing, stall weaving or walking, and fence line pacing.  The stable vices are classified as "compulsive" behaviors and termed by some as true addictions. 

There is scientific evidence that the compulsive vices cause a release of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that act like opiate narcotics, such as morphine.  The endorphins cause a general feeling of well-being, which long-distance runners often note when they reach a point where these chemicals are released by the body.  It has been demonstrated that drugs that block or reverse the effects of the endorphins will halt the stable vice temporarily.  Researchers do not know what factors lead to the development of cribbing, but it is often attributed to some degree of boredom.  

Cribbing is the act of sucking air into the throat.  The horse usually rests its teeth on an object such as a board, feed manger, or bucket, and arches and contracts the neck muscles while letting out a belching type of sound as the air is gulped. Cribbing raises several concerns. Some people think that a cribbing horse might "teach" the vice to other horses in the barn.  To my knowledge, no research supports this and there is rarely a barn full of cribbing horses. Another concern is that cribbing can lead to colic, although no scientific evidence suggests that cribbers are predisposed to health problems.  The chronic cribber can cause a good deal of damage to its incisor teeth and destroy stall doors, feed mangers, buckets, and almost everything else it attacks in the effort to crib.  Some horses are so obsessive about cribbing they will attempt to do it on people if given the chance.  

The desire to intervene and try to end cribbing varies with individual owners, and the success varies with individual horses.  There are a number of commercial devices available, such as cribbing straps or collars that have a variable degree of success.  The first thing to do is remove all objects on which a horse might crib, but for the extremely obsessive horse even a crack in the wood or a small nail head will do.  In addition to these interventions, there are several surgical procedures that have evolved as a potential treatment.  In these procedures several of the long muscles on the neck are cut in an effort to prevent the neck arching necessary for cribbing.  In addition, one of the surgical procedures cuts the nerve that connects to muscles necessary for neck movements.  If your horse is a cribber and you worry about health implications, consult with your veterinarian about potential treatment options.  

Another stable vice that can be extremely destructive is wood chewing.  For the vigorous wood chewer it is only a small task to create portholes all over the stall as well as destroy paddock fences.  There are numerous commercial products available to spray or paint on the wood to prevent chewing. Again, the success of these products depends on the obsessiveness of your horse.  I have had a horse immediately start gnawing on wood just sprayed with fresh Tabasco sauce without missing a lick.

Stall weaving or walking is another common vice often attributed to confinement, boredom, and/or lack of social interaction with other horses.  As with all the other stable vices, making an attempt to relieve boredom can help.  Feeding a greater amount of roughage/hay (generally a good thing anyway) and a reduced amount of concentrate/grain also can help.  In addition, a greater amount of turnout with companion horses might offer increased social interaction and thereby reduce the compulsive behavior.  For some horses, the introduction of a companion/buddy such as a pony can help.  In addition, goats can make good companions for some horses.  In cases where some of these common remedies fail, consult with your veterinarian and/or an animal behavior specialist to determine a potential solution to the problem.

About the Author

Michael Ball, DVM

Michael A. Ball, DVM, completed an internship in medicine and surgery and an internship in anesthesia at the University of Georgia in 1994, a residency in internal medicine, and graduate work in pharmacology at Cornell University in 1997, and was on staff at Cornell before starting Early Winter Equine Medicine & Surgery located in Ithaca, N.Y. He is also an FEI veterinarian and works internationally with the United States Equestrian Team.

Ball authored Understanding The Equine Eye, Understanding Basic Horse Care, and Understanding Equine First Aid, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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