Cribbing: Bad for business?

Nobody wants one cribber in their barn, let alone two or three or all the horses, it’s bad on the stalls, bad on their teeth and to an extent I think it’s bad for business as well, here’s why.

Cribbing is a coping mechanism, either for pain, stress and/or boredom. It is commonly seen in horses with ulcers and in performance(show) horses. Showing can be stressful for the horse involved, the atmosphere, the traveling and change of scheduling, it can all be very very stressful for the horse. Show horses also tend to be kept inside stalls more often than not, so as to try to manage how often they get dinged up and manage the quality of their hair coats. Standing in stalls can be rather boring for horses as well, and behold, cribbing will occur. There are methods to lessen boredom for stalled horses, you can get various toys to hang up that they can chew on or mess around with, arena turn out time can be worked in to their day and having a constant supply of hay in front of them can be helpful as well. 

 Ulcers are produced by an over-production of stomach acids which results from not having enough forage in their bellies. Exercise causes this acid to be pushed up into the non-glandular portion of their stomach—this can be seen in the fact that most ulcers occur in the upper, non-glandular mucosa adjacent to the margo plicatus. (succeed-equine) Signs that your horse may have an ulcer or two are if they’re cinchy when you tack them up, kicking out or kicking in at their bellies, a grumpy demeanor during warm-ups or exercising, weight loss and lack of appetite, lack of energy and stamina and/or cribbing. There have been a few studies done, but some have come to show that horses who crib tend to have ulcers. Cribbing and/or wind sucking is the equivalent of someone smoking a cigarette or chewing gum all the time, it relaxes them and distracts them from the pain and discomfort experienced. It’s, as stated earlier, a coping mechanism, one that has been debated in my class as one that should be stopped or one that, while irritating, should be allowed to carry on.  

I’ve been to multiple barns with cribbers and they all have stalls that look similar in that usually the door, buckets and mangers have very obviously been chewed or cribbed on. There’s one barn I went to where the horse had actually chewed down and through the first board of his stall and was working on board number two. There is a difference between cribbing and chewing wood, first off, one is done as a coping mechanism, the other is done because horses are grazing animals. They require a constant supply of forage in front of them to chew on, or they’ll chew on and “eat” wood instead. Cribbing, they grab hold of an object with their teeth and pull and suck up, this is done repeatedly and over time does eventually cause wear and tear on the stall, buckets and mangers used for this annoying activity. The horse at the one barn, working on the second level of wood on his stall also had no hay any where in sight, if he had had any before he ate it all and any little scraps left behind. Judging from his stall this was probably a common occurrence for him to go without hay for long periods of time. Horses crib because, as stated already, they are bored, in pain, or stressed by something or someone in their environment. I look at barns that have cribbers or wood-chewers as “RedFlag” barns. If just one horse cribs, eh, okay, but if multiple horses are cribbing, a little voice inside says Proceed with Caution –so I go through the possible reasons behind why this horse could be cribbing or chewing wood:

  • Ulcers. Is it cribbing because of ulcers, and if so, were the ulcers caused by a stressful environment, or a lack of enough forage. If they’re caused by an inadequate amount of forage I have to wonder about the quality of their pastures and paddocks, and how often they  feed hay and are they feeding enough hay at this barn. If caused by stress, I wonder what about this barn is so stressful that it could cause an ulcer, or is it stress from a traumatic lifestyle before coming to this barn or stress from living the life of a show horse.
  • Boredom. If the horse is bored from being a stall, then I sometimes stop and wonder just how much time does this horse spend in its stall. Does it spend all day in a stall, with little to no turnout time whatsoever? And if so, how long do the other horses on the farm spend standing in stalls, waiting to be turned out? Boredom can also stem from not having anything in front of their faces to eat, which goes to not enough forage, which goes back to ulcers being the root cause of cribbers and wood-chewers.
  • Stressful Environment. A stressful environment will produce a cribber. Stress can be caused by either living the life of a performance horse; harsh training practices; no routine, horses tend to be very routine oriented and thrive off of consistency. If the environment isn’t the same consistently and there is no set routine for them to get on and follow, this can cause for them to become stressed out as well, which can produce cribbing. A stressful barn with an inconsistent mode of function might not be one that’s appealing to a potential boarder or potential training client.

I’m sure there are other factors that can be considered as well, but those three stand out to me and are the first three that popped into my mind when thinking about cribbers and wood-chewers. There are other vices out there as well that are definitely undesired, but cribbing seems to be the most prominent one to me.

            Now the next question is, do we want to try to stop cribbing, or do we want to just manage it? If the horse is cribbing, it’s coping with something negative in its environment, be it pain, stress or boredom. If you take away their ability to cope, what could be the possible consequences? They move on to a different vice that’s worse to help them cope, or whatever it is they are coping with, worsens because they have no way of dealing with it. This can be bad for the horse and this can be bad on the barn and on you, the horse’s owner or caretaker. While cribbing isn’t the most desirable of things, it’s not necessarily the worst and it can be managed to an extent. 

  • Hay-nets. Hay nets provide a way of keeping forage in front a horse’s face for a longer period of time, which helps to keep them from getting bored or from getting stressed or bothered by something or someone in their environment. It can also help in the prevention of ulcers which is a big ingredient in the making of a cribber.
  • Toys to chew on. There are salt blocks the look like apples and other fun items that you can hang in your horse’s stall to give them something to play with or chew on if the urge strikes them.
  • Spray. There are some who put a spray that their horse finds to be not-so tasty on the bars of their horse’s stall. While this can help, it will only help for so long before they decide the taste isn’t that bad or they move onto  a different object in their stall.

There are probably other ways to manage cribbing, Cribbing Collars are a method commonly used, but some horses will still crib even with the collar on, so it’s not a guaranteed method to stop or control cribbing. 

            So is cribbing bad for business, going back to the original point of this posting, I would think the answer would be yes, but some may disagree. It is a vice that does not leave your stalls, buckets or mangers looking attractive to a potential, visiting client—it can be eventually a costly habit as replacing buckets and mangers does start to add up, along with the replacing or repair of stall door and wall boards. It can wear on their teeth eventually as well which can also be a costly experience for the owner of the horse.  At the end of the day it is not a desirable behavior for any horse to display, and while stopping it completely might not be the best thing to do, there are ways it can be managed, after all, nobody wants Woody the Woodchuck and Bucky the Beaver eating their stalls.

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