What Is Cribbing/Windsucking And What Are The Causes And Remedies?
Barb Gallagher August 31, 2013
Cribbing occurs when a horse braces his teeth against a fixed object, then flexes his neck as he draws air into his throat and grunts. Windsucking is similar except that the horse doesn’t grab an object with his teeth before sucking air.
It is an oral coping strategy or stereotypic behavior that is repetitive and a reaction to the horse simply not getting what he needs. In short a functional habit that meets the physiological need of the horse. It is not a compulsion. It is actually meeting a physical need. These behaviors are simply reactions of horses that are not getting what they need. Which is a more natural environment, which is usually unavailable largely because of stable management practices.
Most people believe that it is a vice caused by boredom or mimicry. Wrong! Researchers have ruled out that that is not the primary cause. Another longtime belief or myth is that they crib because they get a “high” from the release of endorphins. In fact studies have shown that endorphin levels in a horse’s bloodstream actually drop when he begins to crib. The causes of cribbing/windsucking are many and each horse is an individual so a full assessment of their history is necessary to understand the what, when, where and how it all started.
You may be able to curb it but, once the behavior is there it is next to impossible to cure it. As is in many addictions, one addiction is just exchanged for another. It is truly a sad thing to witness when a horse is in such a desperate place that they have to resort to such practices. The causes are varied and complicated but, scientific research is getting closer to understanding it and in my own opinion just using common sense of how the horse lives in the wild is key.
Can we assume that if we see cribbing/windsucking that the horse is under stress? No, once the behavior has developed it can persist even when the horse is not stressed. In another study, there was no correlation between the removal of the opportunity to perform the behavior and a rise in stress measurements. However, it was found that stereotypic horses had higher stress levels to start with, even in the pasture. Stereotypic behaviors have never been observed in horses who live as Mother Nature intended.
With the use of endoscopy the link between ulcers and cribbing has strengthened, but no one will state that one causes the other. Many horses with ulcers don’t crib and many cribbers don’t have ulcers. Although the incidence of ulcers in cribbers is higher. In recent studies it was found that 80% of all horses have ulcers.
Are some behaviors learned? We commonly assume this but, it could be that they are under the same management as their neighbors so, it could be the management or design that is causing them to adopt a stress coping mechanism. Beyond that, mimicry has yet to be shown in any horse behavior. There is also the possibility that the sight of another horse cribbing or performing a stereotypy is a stress in and of itself and that could be what is going on when the prevalence of a stereotypic behavior starts to rise in a barn.
Cribbing tends to occur immediately after a meal that contains molasses and researchers have established a clear connection between cribbing and sweet feed (although feeding a horse plain oats and molasses doesn’t seem to stimulate cribbing). Foals fed sweet feed at weaning are much more likely to develop a cribbing habit. Cribbing does not promote salivation but, it does stimulate the vagus nerve and production of stomach acid, which can lead to ulcers. Feeding alfalfa also seems to promote cribbing; otherwise, horses seem to crib less when eating only hay. Sweets, even apples and carrots trigger cribbing. Foals fed a concentrate after weaning are four times more likely to become cribbers that foals fed forage only. So, the recipe for producing a cribber, is early weaning, a high concentrate/low forage diet and infrequent feedings. It is also known that a cribber’s motivation to crib is equal to his motivation to eat.
Administering antacids to cribbers does raise the PH of the stomach (making it less acidic) but, it does not reduce the frequency of cribbing. According to a spokesman at Merial, the company that makes GastroGard, no studies have been done to determine the efficacy of their product on reducing cribbing. The common denominators in cribbers are: high-sugar “sweet feeds” consisting of a large portion of the horse’s diet, limited roughage, long periods with no available feed, social isolation and stall environment or design.
Cribbing often starts at weaning or when a horse is put into a stall and fed grain. Dr. Danial Mills, Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in the UK believes that half of all cribbing starts within 20 weeks of age, the typical time of weaning. As stated above, foals fed a concentrate are four time more likely to become cribbers than foals fed forage only.
There seems to be little doubt among researcher’s (although it had not been documented) that cribbing is influenced by genetics and skips generations. It is very strongly suggested that cribbers never be bred, regardless of their conformation or potential. The highest incidence of cribbing is first among Thoroughbred’s and then Quarter Horses are next and evidence points to a genetic link there.
Science has confirmed that cribbers are prone to colic, making them largely uninsurable due to their risk of mortality.
A cribbing behavior can generally be reduced and sometimes eliminated by addressing the cause and not the symptom. Feed plain oats and grass hay, avoiding sweet feeds and alfalfa if possible. Grass hay is ideal because it keeps a horse busy and helps neutralize the stomach acid that flows constantly to the equine stomach. Check with your vet about adding an equine antacid to the diet. Add supplements if need be to replace the vitamins and minerals your horse was getting on a concentrated feed. Provide as much turnout with other horses as much as possible, 24/7 turnout is ideal.
Off the Home Range.
Home range being the distance the horse covers each day in search of food and water. In a domestic situation, the horse is in a very intense environment where what they eat is close at hand and food is in a concentrated form and readily available. A concentrated ration can be consumed in 2 to 3 hours where horses have evolved to graze 16 hours a day. In general, look at the way forage is presented and how forage time could be increased. Make them work harder to get forage. A variety of forages instead of just hay alone can also reduce the abnormal behavior.
Muzzles, straps or In extreme cases surgery, where the nerve or muscle in the neck is cut are all methods that have been used in the past with not much efficacy. There are also distasteful compounds that can be painted on surfaces they crib on but, that is time consuming and costly not to mention that every time you move the horse somewhere you have to repaint all surfaces.
Harm to Horse
Possible development of ulcers, wear on the upper teeth, over development of neck muscles. Cribbing can also result in a rare form of colic called, epiploeic foramen entrapment, which occurs when the cecum fills with air, floats out of position and becomes stuck. This type of colic, though rare in horses, is somewhat more common in cribbers.
Radar, a four year old wild mustang gelding taken off the range at the age of one and subsequently adopted by an 80 year old woman who developed a love/hate relationship with him displays constant windsucking on the back of one of his herd mates. From my understanding he was with this woman for two years and was sent to a couple of different trainers. There is little information on what or how the trainers handled him so it is hard to know when the behavior started. I believe he was also kept in a round pen by himself therefore his separation anxiety was probably huge. He has been at the Dimock ranch for the past year with some training and in a herd environment. He has gone from wood chewing to cribbing to wind sucking on another horse. The mere fact that he was taken off his natural habitat, isolated, not given the opportunity to forage and move and possibly abused it is no wonder that he has resorted to desperate measures to comfort himself. He has recently been adopted again and will be going to a home with a draft horse as a herd mate. If he is not given adequate movement and the ability to forage many hours a day I do not see his behavior changing.
He has been given some Bach flower remedies of Walnut and Rescue Remedy but, since we are only here for a short time we have not been able to see if they are working as yet.
What I have learned
This has been a very fascinating subject and I feel I learned a great deal by researching it and finding out certain things that I have heard over the years that are not true and I will not be parroting again. Thanks for the opportunity to learn!
Below is a picture of Radar wind sucking on his herd mate, Toby.