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Crib-biting - Vice or Cry for Help?
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Crib-biting - Vice or Cry for Help?

Whilst scanning the ‘for sale’ section in a horsey magazine, I noticed a particularly handsome dressage horse for sale at what appeared to be a very cheap price. On reading further, I realised why; he’s a crib-biter. This is a potentially serious stable vice and many livery yards do not welcome horses with this habit. But what does ‘crib-biting’ mean, why does it matter if a horse does it and how can it be prevented?

What is crib-biting?

Crib-biting is described by vets as a ‘repetitive oral behaviour’ in the same family as wind-sucking and wood-chewing. It’s most often seen in stabled horses although severe cases can also be observed crib-biting on fence posts and other fixed objects when turned out.

The horse grabs the edge of a fixed object with its incisor teeth and pulls backward, flexing its neck muscles as it does so and often making a grunting sound which is referred to as ‘wind-sucking’. Wind-sucking is often part of a horse’s crib-biting behaviour, although it’s a totally different problem.

Crib-biting is also referred to as a ‘stereotype’. This means it’s a repetitive behaviour with no apparent purpose. As cribbing occurs more commonly in stabled animals, it’s thought that the environment is to blame although recent research has suggested that the behaviour may be inherited.

Why is crib-biting a problem?

Habitual crib-biting causes extreme wear on the horse’s front teeth which can lead to problems with grazing. Associated problems include; weight loss, excessive water consumption, loss of appetite, gastric ulcers and colic and research actually now suggests that cribbing may be symptomatic of colic and other gastric problems rather than a contributory factor.

Although it’s now been proven that crib-biting is an abnormal behaviour that can begin in foals if weaning is not carried out correctly, there is much evidence that it is also a learned behaviour. Therefore, in a barn full of horses if one is a crib-biter, there’s a good chance his neighbour will pick up the habit too.

Prevention

The stress of being held in an unnatural environment; i.e. a stable, for long periods of time with inadequate distraction exacerbates problems like crib-biting. The horse is by nature a trickle feeder that spends many hours wandering from pasture to pasture seeking food as he goes. An empty stomach, insufficient roughage and large amounts of hard-feed in the diet can cause a horse to become prone to crib-biting.

If your horse crib-bites, it’s a good idea to get him checked out by a vet to eliminate underlying gastric problems. In the meantime, provide him with the most natural lifestyle that you can:

· Allow him as much turn-out as possible and provide ad-lib forage or a high fibre diet whilst he is stabled.

· Avoid concentrated feedstuffs, particularly carbohydrates.

· Give him as much social contact as you can; horses are gregarious, herd animals and separation or isolation are guaranteed stress causes.

· Wean foals naturally and gradually.

Attempting to prevent the horse from crib-biting by using punishing collars, anti-crib surfaces, medication or surgical procedures will not work; such tactics only serve to mask the problem rather than treat the cause. Remember; your horse could be crib-biting because it helps to relieve some form of gastric discomfort and removing his ability to do so will only stress him more. In the short-term, whilst you are using improved management to help relieve the habit, provide your horse with a less harmful surface (rubber coating on the stable door, for example).

In conclusion

I wonder if the poor horse for sale at a reduced price because of his ‘vice’ was bought by someone who tried to get to the bottom of his problem. Horses cannot speak to us to tell us what is wrong; as horsemen we must learn to ‘talk horse’ by watching their behaviour and understanding what is causing it; only then can we really help them.

Image source: Pets4Homes

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  1. jst4horses
    Great article. Cribbing is a problem we have had in many a horse, as we went through the years in show and racing barns. My sons bought me a halter champion, that like the horse noted in this article was not wanted because of his cribbing, along with other vices caused by a divorce that left him in a stall with electric wire around so tight he got burned continually. I put him in an expensive small stable. They called the next day and asked if they could put him in a pen, he had eaten their barn. I went and saw. He had eaten their barn. gaping holes in the walls. We put him in a large outdoor paddock, and over the years moved him to a large field with other horses. He gave up cribbing. On the other hand, a friend rescued one that had been at the track and was very nervous. even in a huge paddock with a couple other horses, he pulled the bars and further destroyed his front teeth, WITH a cribbing collar...........Today, he is calmer, works with more people, and does not crib very often. Who really knows what changed in his horsey mind. I was fortunate enough to leave my filly with her Mom until her Mom decided it was time to wean. She is healthy, has no bad habits, and is now down the paddock row from her Mom with no trauma, no vices. After a few months, we can turn them out together, and she does not attempt to nurse, and get kicked or bitten for her efforts. It made me very sad for foals who are taken away from their moms at just a few months, or even weeks.
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    1. autumnap
      autumnap
      Thank you kindly ... people are very quick to condemn a horse with a stable 'vice' without thinking that there could actually be an underlying problem or trying to figure out what it is and help the horse.
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