Managing a Cribber (from AAEP Ask the Vet)

Recently I purchased a 4 YO gelding that had been stall kept. Much to my surprise, he is a cribber. He takes his feed bucket between his front teeth, arches his neck and sucks in air. He is underweight and I feed him grain everyday and he has hay at will 24/7. His appetite is good. Any suggestions?


Dear DW,

Cribbing is a tough issue because there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on what causes it or how to curb it. I consulted the sixth revised edition of Nutrient Requirements for Horses by the NRC for the most up-to-date information and here’s what I found:

  • Cribbing is a stable vice or stereotypie, which is defined as “apparently functionless, repetitive behavior.” Other stereotypies include weaving and stall-walking.
  • Many of the interventions once used to arrest stereotypic behavior, such as punishment or physical prevention, have been recognized to be mostly ineffective and potentially detrimental to the horse’s welfare, especially if no attempt has been made to resolve the instigating cause.
  • Cribbing and other stereotypies may have breed, function, environmental, feed management, age or disease conditions associated with them
  • One study concluded that housing method, whether pasture, box stall or tie stall had little effect on eliciting abnormal behaviors, but that the form of the diet clearly affected behavior.
  • Approximately 10% of preweaning foals and 20% of postweaning foals crib and wood chew, leading investigators suggest that creep feeding concentrate to hungry foals may cause stomach problems that lead to these abnormal behaviors.
  • Cribbing and wood chewing have been associated with a lack of fiber or roughage.
  • Cribbing horses have been shown to have a lower stomach pH, which may be due to too little fiber, too much concentrate and reduced saliva production.
  • Feeding too little hay, feeding hay rather than pasture and feeding only one type of forage have all been shown to induce or increase the risk cribbing and wood chewing.
  • One study showed all horses, whether prone to stereotypic behavior or not, showed more abnormal behaviors as feeding frequencies of grain increased from two to four to six times per day.
  • It has been suggested that cribbing may have a neurochemical origin in addition to the predisposition that may arise through nutritional management.

How can you put all of this (somewhat contradictory) information to use: Although the editors of Nutrient Requirements for Horses fully admit there is little research to support them, these recommendations were listed: avoid creep feeding preweaning, minimize concentrates, supplement with antacid, maintain horses on pasture, increase the hay ration, feed the affected horse before the other horses, reduce the time the horse spends in the stable, increase the horse’s exercise, increase the horse’s social contact, and use a stable chain instead of a solid door so the horse has a varied view from its stall.

In your case, I specifically recommend turning your horse out on pasture to graze (preferably with a buddy or two), reducing the amount of grain you feed him and supplementing with fat and possibly other weight gain products, such as amino acids. You may also want to vary his forage by providing alfalfa or other type of hay. I hope some of these suggestions help!

Lydia F. Gray, DVM MA, currently serves as the Medical Director/Staff Veterinarian for SmartPak Equine. Prior to joining SmartPak, Dr. Gray served as the first-ever Director of Owner Education for the American Association of Equine Practitioners. She has authored numerous articles in publications such as The Horse, Horse Illustrated, Western Horseman and a variety of veterinary journals and magazines. Dr. Gray is also a frequent speaker at horse expos, veterinary conventions and other locations. After graduating with honors from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and receiving her Master's Degree in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication, she practiced at the Tremont Veterinary Clinic for several years. Dr Gray is active in the American Veterinary Medical Association and Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association and enjoys training and showing her trakehner Newman in her spare time.  Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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