Causes Of Cribbing In Horses

Chewing paint is not cribbing but potentially just as harmful. From Bad Neighborhood Photos.
Chewing paint is not cribbing but potentially just as harmful. From Bad Neighborhood Photos.

Cribbing, which is sometimes known as windsucking, is a very serious behavior that is exhibited by a small percentage of horses. About 5% of all horses are reported to be cribbers and they are most commonly horses that are kept in a stall extensively or stabled from a very young age. Thoroughbreds are statistically the most common breed to crib with Quarter Horses reported to the second most likely breed to exhibit the behavior. Cribbing is easily identified by the behavior of the horse and includes the animal grabbing onto a solid object with his or her mouth, arching the neck up and gulping in air, producing a loud hollow gulping, grunting or choking to wheezing type of sound.

Not Just A Bad Habit

At first glance this may seem to be just an annoying habit, but it is a significant health problem. If the horse cribs on wooden stalls or boards the splinters jam into the gums and can cause serious infections. The splinters can also be gulped in with the air, creating lacerations down the windpipe and into the lungs. Over time a horse that cribs will wear down the front teeth and this can lead to nutrition problems if the horse is on pasture at some later point. The muscles of the neck are also constantly flexed in an arched position when the horse is cribbing, creating movement problems over time.

Genetic Factors

Most researchers now agree that cribbing is predisposed genetically, not a learned behavior. Many foals will start to crib at as early as 20 weeks and this can be made much worse if weaning is done early or it is traumatic for the foal. Since the behavior isn't learned a horse or foal that is stalled in a barn with a cribber won't learn how to crib, but if the mare or stallion in the breeding pair cribbed then a foal is more likely to develop the behavior. Cribbing may also be more problematic with horses that are confined to a stall without regular turnout and those that are fed on pellet or cube type diets as opposed to grain and forage diets. Horses that are kept in paddocks or on pasture rarely crib until they are brought indoors, which leads to the next consideration.

Horse Psychology And Cribbing

Research has shown that cribbing is a psychological response to stress, anxiety, pain or confinement. A horse is a naturally nomadic animal that travels miles a day grazing and moving from food to water sources. When confined to a stall, this natural instinct is thwarted and cribbing is the horse's way of trying to do something to calm that natural need to move, chew and relieve the frustration. Unfortunately the cribbing behavior cannot be unlearned once developed. Cribbers that are turned out on pasture will often continue to crib, although at a lower frequency, since this is the way they have found stress release in the past.

Just sticking my tongue out at ya! Photo from Bad Neighborhood.
Just sticking my tongue out at ya! Photo from Bad Neighborhood.

Management Options

While there is no cure for cribbing, owners do have some options. One of the most effective changes is to add more forage to the horse's diet, providing them hay to chew on while in the stall. Feed the oats and hay together, slowing down the feeding and forcing the horse to spend time chewing his or her food. Specific types of paint can also be used to treat the wood in a horse's environment to discourage cribbing. This may or may not be effective depending on how strong the urge is for the horse to crib. Cribbing collars and muzzle work to provide a physical deterrent to cribbing. They restrict the movement of the jaw and the neck muscles, tightening when the horse attempts to arch the neck or open the jaw wider than would occur for eating or grazing. The horses will attempt to rub these devices off, sometimes causing hair loss and significant skin abrasions.

Habee has written a terrific article on one option to both help manage horse stress that leads to cribbing as well as to prevent it from getting started. Check out her article on Great Toys For Horses for more information

Overall the best practice is to carefully monitor all stalls and horses, particularly young fillies and colts, for any sign of cribbing behavior. If any is noted or a genetic issue is known, keep these horses on pastures or in paddocks and avoid stabling them for extended periods of time. Preventing the behavior from getting started is the best way to manage the situation.

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Comments 7 comments

Deb Dahlberg Rowland 6 years ago

I have a cribbing mare, she has cribbed all her life and has spent most of her life on pasture. She is a wind sucker and is addicted to the adrenaline rush she gets, she is not a termite ( stall chewer ). She lives in a crib collar and strangely enough when she is in foal or has a foal at her side she doesn't crib. None of my other horses have ever picked this bad happen and neither have her foals.

Mardi profile image

Mardi 6 years ago from Western Canada and Texas Author

Hi Deb,

I agree and some research does indicate an addictive type of issue with brain chemistry changes in the cribbing horse. Cribbing collars do work, much better than the rings in the teeth from what I have heard. We had one horse, retired from the track, that cribbed but was not as bad when on pasture and with other horses. Glad your mare's foals haven't inherited the problem - lots of interesting research continuing on with this issue. With the foal thing that is strange, maybe some type of hormonal issue???

Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

katherine h 5 years ago

Hey I have a four month old azteca foal who has just started cringing. He is kept outside with his dam and has access to free choice hay and a ball to play with. I'm devastated and don't k ow what the best route is at this point. I'm thinking of weaning him and turning him out in a larger area with three geldings to occupy his time but don't want the stress of weaning to make the habit worse. His dam doesn't like to play with him and maybe his boredom started this behavior. His sire and dam don't crib and no other horses on our farm do either. How did this happen?

katherine h 5 years ago

That's cribbing not cringing. Darn this autocorrect. :-)

katherine h 5 years ago

That's cribbing not cringing. Darn this autocorrect. :-)

katherine h 5 years ago

Also considering electrifying the tops of all the fences in his current paddock to discourage him with negative reinforcement. He just began this behavior in the past week.

Mardi profile image

Mardi 5 years ago from Western Canada and Texas Author


Sorry for not getting back sooner with a comment. Is it true cribbing or just chewing on stuff?? Lots of colts will chew on wood, plastic or whatever they have around them but that is not cribbing. If it is cribbing or even chewing first I would talk to a vet that specializes in horses, find a good one don't just a large animal specialists or a general vet, look for an equine specialist.

When you are saying paddock I am thinking a relatively small space without much pasture to nibble on. You did say he had free choice hay but he may be wanting to graze. Typically horses and foals on pasture or outside don't crib, it is horses that are stabled or confined that are much more likely to do this.

I do hope you get it figured out. I would think if it is just chewing and before it becomes a behavior the electric fence would help- but I would still check with a vet to make sure it isn't anything else like teeth problems!

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