Cribbing: Can You Stop It?

A modified laser surgery has shown promise.

Many horses kept in unnatural environments and subjected to the stress of performance careers resort to repetitive behaviors (called stereotypies) such as cribbing, weaving, or stall walking. The cribbing horse grabs a surface with his top incisors, arches his neck, opens his throat, and swallows air with a grunting sound and a backward pull of the head. This activity wears down the top incisors and develops unsightly muscles under the neck that can interfere with proper neck flexion when ridden. Serious cribbers might lose weight because they become so addicted to their habit they'd rather crib than eat. Once the habit starts, many horses keep cribbing even when turned out to pasture.

Most horse owners who have a cribber try various ways to halt this activity, such as covering stall surfaces with rounded metal edges (which are difficult to grab) or using shock collars or cribbing straps. With a shock collar you must be present to thwart the action, and this might only break the habit if a horse has just started to crib.


A cribbing strap or collar is a form of self-punishment. It is fastened around the throatlatch and adjusted to cause discomfort when the horse cribs--making it painful to contract the muscles that retract the larynx to suck in air. Many straps are fitted with a piece of metal or stiff leather under the throatlatch. When the horse arches his neck to suck in air, the strap tightens and the point of the metal or the stiff leather jabs into the skin. The pain makes him move his head forward and the larynx is not retracted.

These devices are not long-term solutions; horses resume cribbing whenever the straps and collars are removed. They might wear hair off the throatlatch, often to the point of creating sores if they're not frequently checked. Wearing a strap all the time can pose risk to the horse if the device catches on anything.


Surgery to remove portions of the three major neck muscles on the underside of the neck (used in cribbing) sometimes is performed to keep a horse from retracting the larynx, along with a neurectomy to remove a small portion of the nerve on both sides that innervates the largest of these muscles. At first this surgery was only about 60% successful. Some horses eventually started cribbing again, recruiting other muscles to facilitate the action. Newer methods have improved the success rate.

Daniel J. Burba, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, a professor of equine surgery at Louisiana State University, has been using laser surgery for preventing cribbing since 1994 and modified the basic technique.

In the initial technique surgeons would cut the strap muscles (paired muscles under the throat). "A section was taken out the sternothyroideus, sternohyoideus, and omohyoideus," says Burba. "Dr. Forssell, who originated the surgery, later revised his first technique because of the unsightly effect it created. Instead of cutting the sternomandibularis on each side of the neck, he transected the motor nerve to those muscles. This 'modified Forssell's procedure' had a 75-80% success rate."

Some horses still went back to cribbing because the two ends of the muscles eventually reconnected through development of fibrosis.

"So we went a step farther and now take out more muscle," explains Burba. "Our transection is more forward, under the jaws, right at the hyoid apparatus, rather than over the throat area. We take out a 34-centimeter section that includes all three pairs of muscles and transect the motor nerve (spinal accessory nerve) on each side of the neck."

The incision is made between the jaws and goes one-third of the way down the neck.

"We use a laser to transect muscles and nerves, which reduces bleeding," he says, explaining that the intense thermal energy of the laser seals blood vessels and nerves as it cuts through the tissue, and this reduces bleeding and pain. Bleeding can lead to a clot and end up as fibrous tissue. "The cosmetic effect is also better, leaving the horse with a cleaner throatlatch area. Many horses develop thick muscles there from the cribbing activity." Once the horse stops cribbing, the muscle is no longer being overdeveloped and reverts to a more normal shape.

Burba has completed the surgery in 75 cases, with a 91% success rate. Average age of horses undergoing this surgery is 5, and most are performance horses.

He feels the reason for the higher rate of success is the creation of a greater gap so the muscle ends cannot fibrose back together.

"We do more closure in the dead space that occurs when we take the muscle out," he explains. "We draw the other muscles on the underside of the neck closer together and suture them down, so there's less dead space to build up serum." He says this also reduces recovery time.

"We put in a drain at the time of surgery and leave it for about five days," says Burba. "We use an active drainage system with suction; the tube coming out has a suction bulb on the end, keeping continual negative pressure on the tube. Each time it gets full we empty it. We try to pull as much serum out as we can, and this reduces the swelling in that area."

The horse usually is kept at the hospital for seven days, until the drain can be taken out. Once the surgical incision has healed and after the staples are taken out (about two weeks), the horse can resume training. Cost for this surgery is about $2,500, which covers hospitalization time.

"Most horses stop cribbing immediately after surgery," says Burba. "We see one occasionally that makes an attempt (to crib), then stops because it doesn't work. The horse can no longer retract the larynx as much as he did previously. We haven't changed the mental aspect; the horse would still crib if he could. But we take the physical ability away."

After a time the horse resigns himself to not being able to crib.

Anything Else?

"To date the laser surgery is the most permanent solution to cribbing."--Dr. Daniel J. Burba

"To date the laser surgery is the most permanent solution to cribbing," says Burba. "There are other things still being investigated. Medical therapy using naloxone was tried, but without much success. The drug is an opiate antagonist that blocks some receptors, and it is related to oxymorphone. Its effects are variable. As long as a horse is on this drug, it halts cribbing, but as soon as the horse is taken off the medication, he goes right back to cribbing. It's a very expensive drug and also difficult to obtain because it is a controlled medication, with potential for addicting side effects in humans."

Naloxone merely replaces the horse's own endorphins with a narcotic.

Some horse owners have tried using cribbing rings or hog rings, a controversial method which involves inserting small metal rings between the horse's front incisors, anchored either in the gum or the bone above the teeth.

The premise of cribbing rings is when the horse tries to crib, the ring causes discomfort. "Just like with a cribbing collar this method relies on a pain response," says Burba. "I have not done this, but have seen horses with rings. These don't seem to create many side effects, but only works as long as the rings are in place.

"They may wear out, fall out, or break," he notes. "On occasion the area where they are inserted may become infected."

Use of cribbing rings is very controversial. In July 2007 the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) released a statement (a comment on use of these rings, not a formal policy) saying that the AAEP does not support the use of hog rings as an anti-cribbing device "until such time as scientific evidence is able to demonstrate that the procedure does not cause unnecessary pain and is not harmful to the gingival, maxillary incisors, and supporting structures."

Burba doesn't put any age restrictions on horses regarding the laser surgery he performs, although most of the his patients that undergo the procedure are young. "I've done some in their teens that have turned out well, but if a horse has been doing this (cribbing) most of his life and is in his teens or 20s, I have some reservations. If an owner comes to me with an older horse, I tell them that if a horse has been cribbing that long, it's not as easy to break that habit, even with surgery. We may not have the same success rate we have with younger horses."

Take-Home Message

Horses that crib can destroy barns and fences, and they might do harm to their teeth or end up with other physical problems. If cribbing might cause your horse to become unhealthy, or if you can't board him because he's "eating the barn," you might consider some of the alternative methods mentioned in this article.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog,, she writes a biweekly blog at that comes out on Tuesdays.

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