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Cribbing: Why Some Horses Need Pacifiers

A cribbing horse will crib on feed tubs, fence boards, stall doors, and virtually any surface within his reach. Some researchers now think that horses crib to relieve frustration, pain, or anxiety.

Shannon Tieke purchased shadow, a 4-year-old Quarter Horse, three years ago as a pasture buddy for her Palomino, who was living alone at her Lafayette, Indiana farm. At the time, Tieke admittedly didn't have a whole lot of horse experience. That's why she was taken aback by her new horse's habit of latching onto his feed bucket with his front teeth and making a hollow, gulping sound. After all, she'd had her other horse for several years and had never seen this behavior before. She wondered if there was something wrong.

Shadow, like an estimated 5% of horses, is a cribber.

A cribbing horse grasps a surface with his incisors, flexes his neck, and swallows air. As the air passes through his throat, it makes a gasping, grunting, or groaning sound.

Sink Your Teeth into Cribbing Research

  • Genetics, diet, personality, and weaning methods seem to play strong roles in determining whether a horse will crib.
  • Horses are unlikely to learn to crib from other horses.
  • Cribbing can pose an increased risk of colic.
  • Regular turnout and a forage and oats-based diet can reduce the frequency of cribbing.
  • Cribbing collars and muzzles can stop horses from cribbing, although
  • experts disagree about whether we should try to prevent cribbing around-the-clock.

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The behavior can be hazardous to the horse's health, and there is no "cure" for the condition. Once a horse starts to crib, he might feel the need to latch onto any surface in his reach. Most often, horses will crib on fence boards, stall doors, and feed tubs. Auburn University professor and Extension horse specialist Cindy McCall has even had reports of horses cribbing on crossties in a barn aisle and-one particularly determined cribber-on his own shoulder.

There are ways to manage a horse's cribbing, and research is underway to better understand and work with cribbers.

Physiological Foundation
In reality, a horse doesn't crib because he wants to be a bad horse. Some researchers now believe that horses do it to relieve pain, anxiety, or frustration.

Researchers call an activity that's repeated without variation and without goal or function a "stereotypic behavior" or "stereotype"-which more accurately describes a horse's need to crib.

"They're really highly motivated to crib. They will work as hard to crib as they will for food," says Katherine Houpt, a professor of behavioral medicine at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Research into endorphin levels-the "feel good" chemicals in the bloodstream-has not yielded consistent results as to whether cribbing horses actually get a high from their actions.

One possibility Dr. Houpt suggests is horses might not crib because of the endorphins; rather, the endorphins that are already present from another source-such as a type of feed-might be a cause for the action.

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