Cribbing Not a Learned Behavior, Researchers Say

Despite many horse owners' belief to the contrary, researchers concluded in a new study that cribbing does not appear to be a learned disorder. However, genetic predisposition appears to be a factor, especially among Thoroughbreds.

Julia D. Albright, MA, DVM, and her colleagues at Cornell University surveyed horse owners about cribbing. Although 49% of owners thought cribbing was a learned behavior, only 1% of cribbers actually started cribbing after exposure to another cribber.

"Cribbing seems to start at a fairly young age, and after the horse begins to display the behavior the initiating factors probably aren't contributing," Albright said. "In other words, if you have a young horse, we recommend weaning in groups in a pasture and with little creep feed. However, if you have a 10-year-old cribber, lots of pasture time probably won't make a difference."

Social isolation and being housed next to an aggressive horse might aggravate a crib-biter.

"Horses are social animals whose natural ecology is grazing at least 16 hours a day in groups. It just makes sense that to have healthy, less stressed horses, we should try to mimic this situation," she said.

"Cribbing is complicated and probably caused by many factors," said Albright. "These horses aren't 'bad,' and we should stop physically and verbally punishing, shocking, and isolating them. For the health of the cribbers (and barn), the behavior should probably be stemmed with a cribbing collar, a diet low in concentrates and high in roughage, and pasture time."

But don't call it a vice. "These horses have a true neurologic pathology, comparable to obsessive compulsive behaviors in humans," she said. 

The study, "Crib-biting in U.S. horses: breed predispositions and owner perceptions of aetiology," was published in the May issue of the Equine Veterinary Journal. The abstract is available on PubMed.  

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.