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.
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).
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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