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What To Do With a Cribber

University of Illinois Extension

Cribbing is an acquired habit in which a horse grasps an object with its incisor teeth, arches its neck, pulls backward, and swallows air. "There is a suspicion that it is an addictive behavior and that endogenous endorphins, pain-relieving substances similar to morphine, are released from the brain when a horse cribs," says Dr. Jonathan H. Magid, equine veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital at Urbana. "It is a repetitive behavior, like pacing or weaving seen in caged animals, but it is more damaging to equipment and to the animal than are other habits."

Aside from damaging barns and fences, the habit results in severe erosion of the incisor teeth and malocclusion and dental disease in the molars. These dental abnormalities can take years to repair because the teeth have to grow out to their normal length and need to be kept filed even. It is thought by some that swallowing air causes digestive disturbances, colic, and flatulence, but recent studies don't support this hypothesis. However, damaged teeth will contribute to colic.

"A cribber is usually an intelligent horse that needs more to do with its life. Cribbing is something to do," says Dr. Magid. Sometimes a horse will learn to crib by watching another horse do it. It is possible they like the noise. Perhaps they do it for attention. Stalled horses typically develop the habit, but a horse may crib on a pasture fence if the pasture is not good.

What should a horse owner do about a cribbing horse? "First, have the horse thoroughly examined by your veterinarian to see if there is a medical cause," advises Dr. Magid. "Then alter the horse's environment to make cribbing inconvenient and to provide alternative entertainment." Horses have a difficult time cribbing on objects below knee level, so things like feed bunks can be lowered. Metal strips on stall doors and electrical fencing can help prevent damage to wood. Some horses enjoy rattling a plastic container with gravel hung in their stall. Some horses enjoy big beach balls in their pasture. Sometimes a buddy, such as a kitten or goat, will keep a horse content. Adding more hay to the diet keeps a horse busy eating. "One good solution is to put the horse to work," says Dr. Magid. "Hardworking horses don't have much interest in cribbing."

For the incurable cribber (and there are some) Dr. Magid recommends a stainless steel muzzle attached to a breakable halter. The muzzle effectively prevents cribbing and because it takes a muzzled horse longer to eat it keeps them busy eating. A breakable halter will break instead of choking the horse to death if it gets caught on something. "It is a lot cheaper to replace a broken halter than a dead horse," says Dr. Magid, "which is why I do not recommend cribbing collars. A cribbing collar is an accident waiting to happen.

"Horses do well when they have access to good pasture, healthy teeth, regular exercise, and environmental stimulation. Sometimes even a radio helps, although I've never met a horse that likes heavy metal or Hank Williams, Jr."

For more information on horse care, contact your local equine veterinarian.

From the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine Veterinary Extension/CEPS

By Theresa A. Fuess, Ph.D.
Information Specialist
University of Illinois
College of Veterinary Medicine