Cribbing And Other Unusual Addictive Behavior


Cribbing is a repetitive action by the horse where an object placed between the front teeth (incisors) may hold the object, suck it, or rock it. No official cause and, therefore, no official treatment is available to prescribe.

Some time ago, a study gave horses naloxone, a drug used for addiction to narcotics by blocking opiate receptors, which immediately stopped horses from cribbing, proving that the behavior was related to an endorphin release. However, the drug’s effect was short-lived and was itself addicting to horses and humans (it is a controlled substance), not to mention expensive.

Insurance companies have correlated cribbing with colic, thus requiring the disclosure of cribbing on insurance forms. Unfortunately, correlation does not equal causation. Many non-cribbing horses have colic, and many cribbing horses never have colic. This action by the insurance industry is unfortunate. A better correlation would be between colic and other stressors, of which there are many. Cribbing only stresses humans that hear it, but it results from accumulated stress in horses. Where do you start removing these stresses, and how do you show these changes to an insurance company?

Many use tight collars around the throat area of horses to inflict pain when horses crib. They work, but obviously through pain. Others use muzzles, but these frustrate horses. Mechanical devices applied to diminish or eliminate cribbing do not address the cause, but we are stuck until we can solve this. A few say that cribbing is reduced or eliminated after removing all inflammatory ingredients from the diet. This observation is inconsistent, though I believe gut inflammation may be one of many stress factors.

Many horse owners believe horses learn cribbing by watching other cribbing horses. But, again, this is a correlation and not causation, and there are many other common factors, such as diet, ventilation, workload, etc. Looking for and adjusting every possible stress affecting horses may be the first step in reducing or preventing cribbing; however, in many barns, removing all causes is impossible. The good news is that the cribbing might continue after lowering stress and inflammation, but the chance of illness, such as colic, can be reduced.

Weaving is when the horse swings their head from side to side, barely missing the wall in front of them. In my experience, I see this as a horse trying to communicate with humans. I have seen stallions do this more than geldings and mares. By positioning the stallion in another stall (usually the first stall in the barn where they can see everything) or blocking their view to the outside, many weaving horses stop. With some thought, observations and trial and error, the cause of weaving may be discovered and resolved.

Stall kicking, especially at feeding time, is a type of anxiety that stems from the horse not feeling comfortable. A common result of removing horses from grain and other inflammatory ingredients (feeding only pasture, hay, salt and water) is the cessation of anxiety-based behavior, usually in about three days. It is worth trying. Human studies show that gut microbiota messages the brain via the gut-brain axis along the vagus nerve. This controls the expression of depression and anxiety. They have also shown that by changing the diet, and thus the microbiota, in rats, researchers can create or eliminate anxiety and depression. Using techniques to assess and alter the gut microbiome is now being considered a therapy.

One more thing; many of these repetitive behaviors cause damage to stalls, barns, and fences. For this reason, horse owners want to stop horses from damaging their farms. Until more is known, this may be hard to do.

I call this form of cribbing “tub sucking,” but if a horse grabs any object and sucks, then the horse is cribbing.

This lip-sucking behavior, I would group with cribbing as it is a habitual behavior with seemingly no cause or purpose. This horse was new to the barn with no history, and I never saw this horse again, so there was no follow-up.

This unusual behavior of a “snapping jaw,” as the owner called it, is in this video. It is in an aged horse and may be neurological, but an examination did not find a reason. It had an insidious and slow onset (months), and I never saw this horse again, so there is no follow-up.

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