Nearly every horseperson has encountered a devoted cribber. These are horses that engage in the practice of cribbing, pressing their incisors into a stall door, fence post or whatever immobile object is convenient, and inhaling sharply. This habit can lead to chewed-up barns and fences, worn down teeth and health complications in horses.
A new study by Swedish researchers Amir Sarrafchi and Harry J. Blokhuis suggests that there is a more harmful myth at the root of the way many horse owners manage horses that exhibit cribbing and other vices. The study, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, points to research that shows that such behaviors can be linked to the way in which a horse’s environment is managed. Feeding practices, housing conditions and even weaning methods can have an impact on a horse’s potential for developing stereotypies.
The research shows that cribbing and other vices, such as stall walking or weaving (moving side to side at the front of the stall) are done by horses to cope with stress. Owners of horses with vices tend to treat the behaviors directly rather than fixing the cause of stress. Cribbing collars are put on to make it mechanically impossible for a horse to achieve the sharp inhale of cribbing. Kicking chains are put on stalled horses to provide negative reinforcement against excessive motion in the stall. But these types of treatments don’t address the stress that is believed to cause stereotypic behavior in the first place.
There is still a lot of mystery behind how stable vices develop and what causes horses to display them. In their study, Sarrafchi and Blokhuis conclude that in spite of the unknowns, growing evidence points to the importance of addressing the underlying causes of vices instead of trying to suppress the behaviors. To do otherwise, they point out, could compromise horse welfare.
Anecdotally, horses who are confined to stalls with little or no turnout and are fed at set mealtimes rather than being allowed to forage throughout the day seem more likely to develop vices. Keeping horses in as close to a natural state where they can move freely, graze almost constantly and interact with other, amiable equines is believed to reduce the stress that might lead to stereotypies. However, even these management changes will not solve all cases of cribbing or other problems. More research is still needed to uncover the causes of stable vices.
Sarrafchi, Amir; Blokhuis, Harry. Equine stereotypic behaviors: Causation, occurrence, and prevention. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research – September 2013 (Vol. 8, Issue 5, Pages 386-394, DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2013.04.068)