Cribbing in Horses - How Environment Affects Stereotypic Behavior

Lisa Simpanen

-Cribbing in Horses-

How Environment Affects Stereotypic Behavior

Does the environment in which we keep horses affect whether or not a horse will develop stereotypic behaviors?  Can we help to reduce or even eliminate these behaviors by making changes to the way the modern day horses are housed?

Cribbing is an example of a stereotypic behavior (formerly referred to as a vice), also known as crib-biting.  It involves the horse repeatedly placing their upper incisor teeth on a solid object, (e.g. fence board or stall) arching their neck and pulling backwards against the object while gulping in air producing grunting noises. Cribbing negatively affects the horse in various ways, some examples are: failure to maintain weight, dental problems, colic, gastric ulcerations, and trauma to mouth and gums. For these reasons as well as the mental wellbeing and welfare of our horses, we look for ways to prevent these behaviors.

People have tried numerous methods to discourage or try to stop this behavior. Cribbing collars, surgery, electric wiring, repellents, and muzzles to name just a few.  These have been less than effective and have been suggested to cause the horse more stress. These methods fail to address the underlying causes of cribbing and do not help the horse to cope with stress reduction according to C. Wickens, a review of Crib-biting behaviour in horses .

What are Some of the Causes of Cribbing?

Cribbing has been associated with stable management, stress, anxiety, nutrition, boredom, breed, genetics, and even the sex of horse in scientific research. Limited grazing time, isolation, and decreased opportunity for social interaction have also been shown to increase the likelihood of developing this oral stereotypic behavior. Hunger or even highly concentrated diets can also lead to this behavior.  Research studies have also shown that foals receiving concentrates are four times more likely to develop cribbng habits than other foals after weaning.

In a stabled environment a horses’ ability to move freely and at their own discretion is limited by being housed in a stall for much of the day. Keeping horses stabled too long is often what leads to unwanted stereotypic behaviors. The nearer you can keep your horse to an environment that mimics a horse’s natural environment the less likely it is that a horse would develop this or other stereotypic behaviors. Pastured horses may spend up to 70% of their day foraging. Boredom, lack of locomotion and forage creates anxiety and unwanted behaviors. Stabled horses are often “meal fed” and spend much of the time between feedings with nothing to forage on. Feed deprivation can result in gastric ulcerations.  Being isolated and unable to socialize with other horses often causes them a great deal of stress and anxiety. They are social like people and need interaction with their own species.

How Can We Improve These Environments to Decrease or Prevent the Chances of Horses Developing this Behavior?

In order to reduce the number of stereotypic behaviors it is of the upmost importance to first understand the behavior, especially the cause(s), and then make the necessary improvements to management. Looking at prevention methods as a rule are more effective than trying to stop the behavior once it is developed.

Increasing the amount of time they are spending outside and ensuring they are turned out with other equines satisfies a horses’ natural need for companionship and social interaction with other horses. “Lack of forage is the most important management factor linked with the development of stereotypic behaviors in cross sectional epidemiological studies” according to Paul McGreevy in the text book Guide of Veterinarians and Equine Scientists. If given the choice, horses would spend up to 15 - 20 hours a day foraging with other equines, so providing them with sufficient space, good pasture to roam, and unlimited hay would be preferred.

Performance horses that are travelling and limited to turn out can be hand walked, groomed, have other horses around them for comfort, exercised and offered as much free hay and water as possible to help alleviate stress or boredom while away from home. Paul McGreevy states “A parallel study in dressage and eventing horses demonstrated that the amount of time spent in the stable correlated with the likelihood of stereotypies being reported.” 

So, the answer to the question is a resounding yes!

The environment in which we keep horses significantly does have an effect on a horses’ behavior.

In conclusion I believe that the key to solving and managing cribbing behavior is in educating horse owners and breeders about the importance of a horses needs. Research studies have provided a wealth of information over the years regarding important factors involved with cribbing behavior and how the stabled environment promotes stereotypic behavior. In order to improve equine welfare, as horse owners we have a responsibility to try to understand what our horses environmental needs are and try to recreate them for our horses health and mental wellbeing. Let’s make the effort to create an environment that gives our horses what they truly need which is unlimited friends, forage, and locomotion.

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