A horse that cribs—called a “cribber”—grabs onto an object with its top jaw and pulls while inhaling. This action is believed to cause endorphins (the neurotransmitters, or chemicals that carry messages through the nervous system) to be released, creating a pleasant feeling for the horse.
“We don’t know why horses crib,” Aromando says. “We think it has to do with boredom, that the cribbing releases endorphins. They crib to satisfy some need.”
Horses that are stalled regularly for long amounts of time may take to cribbing on the top of a stall door or water bucket as a means of entertainment, leaving unattractive bite marks behind on the wood or plastic.
Cribbing can be destructive to your horse’s health as well. Throughout his more than 20 years as a veterinarian, Aromando has seen two main health problems appear in a number of his cribbing patients. He believes that the first, gas colic, is the direct result of a cribbing horse gulping down air.
“I believe that cribbing causes gas colic, though medical studies have not found this to be true,” he says. “I have seen horses that chronically colic that also crib, in my experience.”
Gas colic can be caused by a number of stimuli, from a change in feed to a sudden change in the weather. A horse with gas colic experiences mild to severe abdominal discomfort caused by excessive gas in the intestines. It may paw the ground, roll or lie on its side, or refuse to eat and drink. A horse experiencing severe colic may sweat heavily or refuse to stand up from a lying position. If untreated, colic can result in the death of the horse. If there is any suspicion of colic, a veterinarian should be called immediately.
The second health problem experienced by cribbers is more straightforward.
“It’s bad for their teeth,” Aromando says. “It wears their teeth abnormally, particularly their incisors, from grabbing onto things.”
Horses that crib may need extra dental care to correct the abnormalities in the wear of their teeth, which could make it difficult for them to chew.
Aromando also notes that those who are considering purchasing a cribber should know that resale might be difficult. It is widely believed that cribbing is a learned behavior, and many people won’t bring a cribber home for fear of it teaching the other horses in their barn to crib. Add in the fact that cribbers are often more difficult to insure than other horses, and it is understandable why many potential buyers will take a pass on buying a cribbing horse.
As the owner of a cribber, I’ve learned to live with the vice and the problems it causes—broken fence boards, late-night vet calls and all. Cribbing horses present those of us who care for them with a number of challenges, but we who love them see past that to the talented equine athletes they are.