Cribbing and Colic in Horses: What’s the Link?

The latest on the unlikely relationship between brain, behavior, and belly

Researchers estimate that 2-10% of all horses crib. This stereotypy (defined as a relatively unchanging, repetitive pattern of behavior with no apparent goal or function) involves grasping an object with the incisors, flexing the muscles on the underside of the neck, and drawing air into the upper esophagus, usually while emitting a characteristic grunt, says Sabrina Briefer Freymond, PhD, a researcher at the Agroscope Swiss National Stud Farm, in Avenches.

As a behavioral biologist, Briefer Freymond investigates equine stress physiology and the personality and learning capacity of cribbers, striving to better understand this behavior and its effect on horse welfare.

While some undesirable aspects of cribbing (also called crib-biting) are obvious—such as damage to the surface the horse grips—other effects might be less clear. For example, horses that crib might be at an increased risk of suffering certain types of colic.

In this article we’ll explore the act of cribbing and what we currently know about its link with colic.

Take-Home Message

The driving factors behind stereotypies and the links between those behaviors and colic remain unclear. Whatever the link, cribbing not only causes physical damage to a horse owner’s property but also has health implications, including the increased risk of colic. Although options exist to stop cribbing, welfare concerns complicate the issue, which can make it challenging for veterinarians, researchers, and behaviorists to definitively recommend their use for fear of negatively impacting a cribber’s quality of life.   

“The conclusion drawn is that it may be more useful to remove the sources of chronic thwarting that initially give rise to the stereotypy, rather than to prevent horses from crib-biting,” says Briefer Freymond. “This can be done by improving the captive environment, mimicking nature, increasing feeding time, or giving horses some kind of control over their environment. This should be done for all horses to prevent the development of stereotypes or to cure stereotypes, as well as to improve the welfare of horses that do not crib-bite but are housed in the same environment as crib-biters.”

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