Why Does Brenna Crib?

When I went to look at my hope-to-be-mine-soon horse, Brenna, there wasn’t anything I didn’t like about her.  A 15hh Connemara/Thoroughbred cross with lots of trail, dressage and driving experience, she was cute, friendly and sound.  But as I was already mentally picturing her in my barn, the owner mentioned that she did have this minor problem – she cribbed.

I’d known people at my barn with horses that cribbed and I knew they weren’t always welcome at boarding stables.  But Brenna was going to live at the barn I owned.  I knew some of the reasons horses cribbed – boredom from being stuck inside a stall most of the day – and I knew Brenna was going to have plenty of company and would be turned out 24/7, so I figured she’d “get over it.”  That was 8 years ago and Brenna still cribs.

What is Cribbing?

In cribbing the horse grabs the top of an object with its teeth, arches its neck and pulls against the object, sucking in air.  The resulting rush of air stimulates the horse’s brain and produces endorphins that give the horse a sense of well-being or “high.”  Soon, like many addicts, the horse starts to crave that happy feeling and develops the compulsion to crib at every opportunity.

First of all, there is no evidence that cribbing is “learned behavior.”    I’ve had two high-strung ex-show horses live with Brenna for over 8 years and neither one picked up her cribbing habit.   In fact, Julia D. Albright, MA, DVM and her research team at Cornell University conducted a study confirming that horses don’t learn to crib by mimicking other horses.  However, cribbing CAN be a genetic disposition, especially among Thoroughbreds.

Knowing that cribbing can cause physical problems for horses, dental problems and the possibility of colic, I tried several options.  I bought “Chew Stop” and sprayed it on all of Brenna’s favorite cribbing areas.  It stopped the cribbing – until Brenna just found new places to crib.  And with 5+acres of pasture, I couldn’t spray everywhere.  I also tried a cribbing collar.  After research on everything from shock collars to surgery, I opted for the “Miracle Collar” by Weaver.  I found it easy to use and humane.  And, as long as the horse is wearing it, it does work.  But, take the collar off and within a few days, the horse goes back to cribbing.

I realized that there have been no physically adverse effects on Brenna as a result of her cribbing.  No colic, no depressed appetite, no weight loss, no other problem behaviors.  My vet checks her teeth twice a year when we do shots and has noted no major dental issues as a result of cribbing.

I also realized that Brenna’s cribbing wasn’t much different than those occasional cravings for chocolate I get – and when I need chocolate, look out!  I’ve GOT to have it!  So, rightly or wrongly, I began to equate Brenna’s “high” from cribbing with my “relaxation” from chocolate.    Since neither “vice” was hurting us, I decided that if I could have mine, she could have hers!

Kelly O’Neill is owner of a boarding stable for retired show horses.  She has over 20 years of horse care expertise, with extensive experience in the care of the senior horse. Kelly has been a groom for two professional rider/trainers and has assisted in feeding, blanketing, turnout, medications and vet visits at several barns before opening one of her own in 1998. She now writes on her knowledge and love of horses for both fun and as the premiere writer for Classic Equine Equipment.