Cribbing: Not Always Just a Bad Habit

Cribbing, the process of a horse biting down on a stationary wooden structure, applying pressure and then breathing in deeply, can be destructive to more than just your barn and stalls!

A wooden fence that has been chewed by a cribber.

While cribbing has traditionally been thought to be just a vice or bad habit, new information indicates that a horse that cribs may be responding to a digestive upset. The act of cribbing produces excess saliva. This saliva helps to buffer the stomach and can calm the pain of things like ulcers and other digestive problems.

If you have a horse that cribs, the first step should be determining why the problem started. This may very well include a trip to the vet to rule out gastric ulcers or digestive issues. In cribbers who are diagnosed with ulcers, the behavior often stops or is reduced when treatment for the ulcers is started. Cribbing can also be caused by extreme boredom and is usually associated with horses who spend most of their time in stall situations.

It is important to note that cribbing is not a learned behavior – horses don’t start cribbing because they see their stablemates doing it. Rather, in a group of horses that all begin to crib the catalyst may be management practices that lead to some type of gastric distress. Some of these practices that can lead to cribbing include:

  • Not providing enough long stemmed forage
  • Feeding large grain meals all at one time
  • Not providing a properly balanced diet
  • Not giving adequate access to salt
  • Inadequate turn out time

The bad news is that once a horse has started cribbing, it can be a hard habit to break. As the horse bites down on the wood and inhales, endorphins are released that can give the animal a “high”. That is why it can be very difficult for the horse that has started cribbing to stop – they get addicted to what it does to their body. Unfortunately, cribbing is a very good way to cause colic (as well as destroy property), so all possible steps should be taken to end the behavior.

Once the source of the cribbing is confirmed and addressed, some recommendations to help stop the behavior and break the addiction can include:

  • Adequate long stemmed forage provided throughout the day
  • Plenty of turn out time with opportunities to interact with other horses
  • Stall toys to help ease boredom
  • Placing feed in multiple locations around the pen to make the horse mimic his natural grazing behavior
  • Feeding grain meals in small amounts several times per day rather than all at once
  • Providing a balanced diet
  • Giving ample access to loose white salt
  • Using a special cribbing collar or strap
  • Covering wooden surfaces with anti-chew paint

Treating the cribbing horse can be a challenge, but remember that the first step is figuring out why the problem started. Your horse’s cribbing may just be his way of telling you that he is in pain and needs your help.  

 

 

21 thoughts on “Cribbing: Not Always Just a Bad Habit

  1. Cribbing is a reaction to environmental or emotional stress. I had a cribber and he was one of the best horses anyone could have. I stopped using the cribbing collar and found he cribbed less and was less stressed. Also the colics stopped. I believe the cribbing collar actually caused physical distress even if he was not cribbing to his throat and head. If you disagree just understand that to be effective a cribbing collar has to limit a horses head movements limiting his ability to raise his head and constricts his throat. I truly believe the only benefit for all the cribbing devices and other items that can be bought go to those selling the devices. Studies have shown these devices do not limit cribbing but actually can increase the frustration.
    I created cribbing areas for him of non paint treated wood and he restricted himself to those areas. If you pay attention cribbers will not crib on low objects and will get too much air if high if given an alternative so a board just above the shoulder gives them the satisfaction and less damage.
    Pretty much everything I’ve researched tells me it is part of a particular horse’s disposition. A horse who will crib will crib and you can have 20 non cribbers and they will not become cribbers by being around one but a cribber will learn from other cribbers. I unfortunately discovered this when mine who never cribbed on walls was stalled with one who did he thought it was a great thing and never cribbed on a bucket if a wall was present.
    Amazing as it may seem all cribbers seems to have a preference for what they crib on and when they crib. Q would not crib on a light colored bucket but would go to town on dark buckets. I also found the height buckets were hung also deterred him. Using a feeding pan on the ground versus a hung feeder also lessened his cribbing. Speaking of feeding he would crib usually after feeding – he did not have ulcers he was simply frustrated and wanted more. Now not to advertise your product but I found he cribbed less after switching him from another feed to a Nutrena Senior and Nutrena 14 combination. I also talked to other owners who said certain feeds did seem to make their horses crib less. He also got Himalayan salt regular salt blocks were to easy for him to indulge in and destroy.
    The major change I made was to get Q into a situation where he had unlimited turnout. He still cribbed but not as much as when stall bound. Q would not crib in a pasture. Bored or frustrated horses get a high and satisfaction from cribbing. There is no way to fight the behavior. The biggest thing I had done to lessen both our stress levels is just accepting this is the way it is. The trauma and drama of those who don’t have cribbers I ignore especially those who fixate on impending doom. I can introduce them to several happily cribbing 30 somethings.
    I only recently lost Q but there are those have made comments like “bet the next one won’t be a cribber.” I just say if he does it won’t matter. Quite frankly if a good horse you can trust is a cribber it shouldn’t make a difference just learn to accept it as I have learned to accept boarders who constantly crack knuckles and chew on pens.

      • Dear, Linda
        I haven’t really owned many horses. But I’m currently trying out a horse. Who turns out to be a cribber. I’m unsure of buying her at present. Since I’ve only riden her once, and want to see if she’s right for me. But I’m sceptical, due to the cribbing. I have listed the concerns and means of possible changing the mares behavior. Thankyou for your insight.

  2. What a great comment! We should accept our horses as they are, just like we accept our children, no on is perfect! I always said I would never have a cribber or a Terrier, I now have both!

  3. I purchase Hawk at the age of 5 and he was cribbing then (that’s why they were selling him)! When we brought him home, the first thing I did was throw away the cribbing collar! My husband and I “crib proof” the barn, stalls, fences and gates. Hawk started to crib on the eye bolts in the stalls that held the water buckets!! We took all them out and replaced them with chains. Then he totally destroyed my 100-gal water trough – so we bought four 40-gal rubber ones. We ran electric strand on top of all fences and across the gates. We thought for sure we had beat him! Then I found him cribbing (sideways) on the main support beams of the barn!! Afraid he was going to bring the barn down for sure, we broke down and built a hitching post in the middle of the pasture. It took Hawk no time to figure out when he cribbed on the hitching post, I left him alone (didn’t pull him away from it). That was 10 years ago and we just recently replaced the hitching post with a new one. Sometimes it’s easy to “control” the habit than consistently fail at fighting it. Of course my next hurdle with be the alignment of his teeth and jaw (as he gets older)… UGH! We’ll get tackle that obstacle when we cross it as well. Hawk is my heart, the best horse ever and an awesome trail horse and companion. Very sweet disposition, laid back, smart and will anything to please your request – his only vice is cribbing and we found a way to control it and live with it. No matter what else comes up – we’ll find a solution! Hawk will live out his life at our farm for sure – we wouldn’t have it any other way!

    • Your story sounds so familiar. Junior came to me, cribbing, at age 5 as well. He is now 15. I didn’t go to the extremes you did to try to get him to kick the habit. I did give up on the cribbing collar after about a year. I tried the basket attached to a halter but he still cribbed ( he just couldn’t latch on with his teeth but other than that he went through the motions along with the grunting noise that goes along with gulping air). Yes, he has done some damage, but mostly I feel badly about this teeth. He is fed considerably more than my other 3 horses as he tends to be ribby. He does eat well, but it’s a process of grabbing a bite , chewing a few seconds, then cribbing with hay in his mouth, then continuing to eat. I have timed this and he cribs approx. every 15 seconds! He is, like yours, a sweet, loveable guy and a great trail horse. I do hear him gulp air while riding him but have learned that it’s just the way things are. I also plan to love and care for him until he dies, and will definitely miss him when that day comes.

  4. For all of you who have cribbing horses and just let them crib, have they ever gotten colic from it? I’m new to the horse world and have a horse that cribs periodically, have had her about 3 months, and have tried a cribbing collar that depressed her more than anything. She’s turned out pretty much 24/7, only comes in for grain twice a day and maybe spends an hour and a half tops in the stall total daily. So far she’s been fine but I’m a little worried about what to do going forward. Should I call a vet out and have her check for ulcers? She is also 3 months pregnant, so I’m concerned for the baby too. The vet did see her about a month ago, but she was at her old barn and I wasn’t there to ask the vet about the cribbing. Her and her pasture mate just got moved to my new house about 2 weeks ago and have mainly only eating grass and grain since they got here with no interest in the Hay that I have offered them. Suggestions welcomed.

  5. I have one that’s 24/7 in the pasture and cribs. I used a shock collar, I’ve tried a cribbing strap, I’ve shot him with a BB gun. Doesn’t matter. He knows not to do it, he’s gotten caught too many times. I just can’t be there all the time to try and stop him. I’ve gave up.
    The thing is, I raised this horse. He never did it until he came home from the trainers. 😔

    • I also sent horses out to trainers and they came back as cribbers – mmmmmmmmmmm – wonder why????
      chained to a wall to learn patience and respect – huh – all that did was teach them to crib
      my horses now have 24/7 turnout and are happy and healthy
      I do have a cribber at my barn that has the same 24/7 turnout and he only cribs after he eats so I am thinking he may have ulcers – I am going to try digestive supplement to see if that helps – he is not my horse so I cannot get him vetted to see if he does have ulcers so am just going to treat it like he does

  6. I certainly hope all who ‘accept our horses as they are’ have their own farms! The damage cribbers cause is alarming and very frustratingfor bo’s.

  7. I have a cribber that is turned out 24/7, stays in good weight, and has a pasture buddy. I tried putting a collar on him and it just depressed him. So, I only use it on him if we are going to be at someone’s barn . Had the vet check him out as he barely has any front teeth. He said that his molars are fine and as long as they are he will be okay. Just will have to be creative how he bites off grass. He will choke if grain is dusty so I always add a little water to his feed. I only grain him once a day. He has a pasture buddy to keep him company. I feed him in a bucket that is hung from a strap on the fence and this keeps him from cribbing on the bucket. His happiness is more important than occasionally replacing a board or two.

  8. I also have a Cribber and did not know anything about it until after he was purchased. He has terrible teach and I have gotten several complaints about his cribbing from other owners. It was very hurtful and annoying so I did everything I could to make everyone happy. I have finally come to terms with it after two and a half years. I use a cribbing collar at times but try to keep it off to let him just be a horse. He is a good boy and I am happy that I am thinking more about him than what others think.

  9. I have a cribber. Have had him since he was six months old, started cribbing when he was two. He is now seven years old, cribs when he eats, but not when he is on the pasture. I have never used a collar as I felt that would not do any good. We live with it and, other than having very worn top front teeth, he has been fine. He lost his mom when he was four months old, and his mom was very sick and was pumped full of antibiotics while gestating and lactating. I suspect my guy has ulcers but have never had him checked for this.

  10. My horses teeth are slowly wearing away and been told he will end up with none soon and wont be able to eat what can i do please he has a happy life unlimited hay he is 12 and an exracer please can someone help this boy is everything to me

    • Hi Kiera,
      Thank you for your question about your horse’s teeth wearing away. If he is 12, he should have several years before he has really severe dental problems. This can vary a great deal by horse, quality of teeth and any unusual wear. He should have his teeth checked by a veterinarian at least once a year. You should also keep a close eye on how he is able to chew his hay. If you start to see him dropping chunks of hay (quidding) that is an indication that he is not able to chew the hay very well any more. If he starts to lose weight or muscle mass, you may want to go to a Senior horse feed. The good news is that Senior horse feeds can be made into a mash by soaking in warm water for a few minutes so that they form a mash that requires very little chewing in order to be swallowed and digested efficiently. There are many horses several years older than yours that have essentially no teeth that get along very well on Senior Horse Feeds such as SafeChoice Senior fed as a mash. It sounds like he is really important to you, so I have confidence you will pay close attention to how he chews and how he maintains body condition. Make certain he has access to salt free choice and fresh clean water. You might want to visit for some additional articles on taking care of our old friends.
      Best of luck,
      Roy J.

  11. I had a horse who was only stalled on certain occaisions, like bad weather and never cribbed. Then she got sick and had to be stalled for a couple of months during which she began cribbing. I assumed it was due to boredom. When I let her back out in the pasture 24/7 She stopped, or so I thought. She did a lot of running, she loved it so much she didn’t even want to come inside during rain but would run around our large pasture. However while talking about this article with my husband just now he told me he sometimes saw her cribbing on trees and branches in the pasture. Oh well! Lol.

  12. My horse is 5 and cribs but now he is starting to hurt himself he has multiple cuts on his body.. and his pasture has no really good placed to get scratches… he started doing this after we place a crib collar on and put Cribox on the places he was cribbing… he ia my first horse that love but hate what he is doing…. 😣

    • Hi Lacey,
      Sorry to hear about the problems you’re having with your horse. I would recommend that you first try to figure out if the cribbing behavior is due to pain from a clinical condition. A call to the vet might be helpful to investigate if gastric or colonic ulcers exists. This blog post is full of good advice and things to consider and rule out. Having good quality long stem forage to chew on all day, along with salt and water being available (if not already) would be a good place to start. Minimizing stress, e.g. stall confinement, isolation, long stretches without forage, etc. are recommended as well.
      Best of luck,
      Emily L.

  13. I have a horse that doesn’t crib but have had to put him in a pasture with one that does. Is this something that he will learn to do? My horse is 14 years old and never cribbed before. I am fairly new to horses and am concerned that he might learn to crib.

    • Hi there,
      Great question. The good news for you is that cribbing is not a learned behavior. Instead, it generally comes down to management or digestive issues. The first step with a cribbing horse is to determine the cause. A visit to the vet can help rule out if it is an issue steaming from digestion or ulcers. If those issues aren’t present, then management is the next thing to evaluate. This may include allowing more turn out time or integrating practices to break up extreme boredom.

      Best of luck!
      Robyn

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