Here’s How

Al­ter­na­tives to crib­bing col­lars; tips to win­ter­ize your barn

Practical Horseman - - Contents -

Q My horse has been a long­time crib­ber and I can’t get him to stop. I feel that a crib­bing col­lar would make him un­com­fort­able. Are there other ways to stop crib­bing be­sides the use of a col­lar? Is it OK to let him crib?

KATHER­INE HOUPT, VMD, PhD, DACVB

A You’re right, crib­bing col­lars are usu­ally un­com­fort­able for horses, par­tic­u­larly ones that use a head­stall. To de­cide if you should use one on your horse, eval­u­ate the risk as­so­ci­ated with crib­bing and weigh it against his com­fort. Fif­teen years ago I might have said, “Let him crib,” but now we know crib­bing is a risk fac­tor for colic, par­tic­u­larly epi­ploic fora­men en­trap­ment, a type of colic that re­quires surgery and has low re­cov­ery rates.

When a horse cribs, he sucks, or as­pi­rates, air into his esoph­a­gus. If he does not eat any­thing for a few min­utes af­ter that, the air will dif­fuse out of his mouth. But if he eats, the food will push the air down his esoph­a­gus and into his stom­ach. Over the course of a day, he might re­peat this many, many times, trap­ping quarts of air in his in­testines. This can make the in­testines move—and al­most float—in the ab­domen. As a re­sult, sec­tions of the in­testines can get trapped, es­pe­cially in the epi­ploic fora­men, a nar­row pas­sage be­tween two parts of the ab­domen.

Most of the time, crib­bing can­not be fully stopped, but chang­ing your man­age­ment prac­tices can re­duce its frequency. I have been able to fully stop crib­bing only in horses who have just be­gun the habit. A change in diet can be ben­e­fi­cial, es­pe­cially elim­i­nat­ing sweet feed. Its sug­ary taste re­leases opi­ates in the brain, which cause the horse to crib. Plain oats have a far lower su­gar con­tent and, as a re­sult, are the grain least likely to stim­u­late crib­bing, es­pe­cially when given with plenty of hay. Plain oats and hay are a healthy diet for a horse who is not ex­er­cis­ing rou­tinely. If your horse re­quires more calories, supplement his hay with a low­sugar/low-starch grain or corn oil.

Hous­ing your horse out­side can also help to pre­vent crib­bing if he has just be­gun the habit, or it can re­duce crib­bing frequency if he has an es­tab­lished habit. Over­all, the more time spent out­side eat­ing grass or hay seems to de­crease time spent crib­bing.

Anti-crib­bing col­lars or straps work by pre­vent­ing the horse from flex­ing his neck. He can still latch onto a hor­i­zon­tal sur­face, but if he can’t flex his neck, he can’t suck air into his esoph­a­gus. Ad­justed snugly around the horse’s neck and poll, just be­hind his jaw, th­ese col­lars are ei­ther wide enough to stop the horse from flex­ing or use a jointed metal piece that closes on the throat­latch with a nut­cracker-like ac­tion—or a sharp piece of leather that pokes him—when he tries to flex his neck. Al­though crib­bing col­lars are gen­er­ally very ef­fec­tive and don’t cause stress (which we know be­cause horses’ blood cor­ti­sol lev­els do not rise when they are wear­ing crib­bing col­lars), they must be tight to be ef­fec­tive and thus can cause abra­sions on the skin be­neath them. So if you use one, check that area fre­quently for signs of ir­ri­ta­tion.

A crib­bing muz­zle is an­other op­tion. Crib­bing muz­zles ap­pear sim­i­lar to graz­ing muz­zles, but most use metal bars across the bot­tom to al­low the horse full ac­cess to eat­ing and drink­ing while stop­ping him from bit­ing onto a hor­i­zon­tal sur­face to crib. Th­ese muz­zles don’t seem to cause any dis­com­fort, but they ap­pear to be more frus­trat­ing to horses wear­ing them than crib­bing col­lars.

Aw­ful-tast­ing sprays ap­plied to where the horse cribs rarely help. When horses crib, they are not ac­tu­ally tast­ing the hor­i­zon­tal sur­face they’re bit­ing, just rest­ing their in­cisors on it. There­fore, ap­pli­ca­tion of some nox­ious sub­stance is typ­i­cally in­ef­fec­tive. How­ever, it will re­duce wood chew­ing.

The million-dol­lar ques­tion is: Why would a horse start crib­bing in the first place? There is a hered­i­tary com­po­nent to it, but the gene that causes it has not been iden­ti­fied. A change of diet, es­pe­cially from pas­ture to grain, seems to be the most com­mon stim­u­lus. So your best strat­egy for re­duc­ing your horse’s crib­bing rate is to give him a lower-su­gar grain (and/or less grain al­to­gether, if pos­si­ble), less stall time and more pas­ture time. If he has had gas colic al­ready, he def­i­nitely should wear a crib­bing col­lar.— Veron­ica Green-Gott

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia School of Vet­eri­nary Medicine, Dr. Kather­ine Houpt went on to re­ceive her doc­tor­ate in be­hav­ioral psy­chol­ogy from UPenn as well and to be­come board-cer­ti­fied in vet­eri­nary be­hav­ior. She cur­rently works as an equine be­hav­ior­ist at Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity in Ithaca, New York. She has a clin­i­cal in­ter­est in do­mes­tic an­i­mal wel­fare and in the phys­i­o­log­i­cal ba­sis of equine in­ges­tive and ma­ter­nal be­hav­ior. Dr. Houpt is es­pe­cially pas­sion­ate about im­prov­ing the wel­fare of horses be­ing used for sport and recre­ation and has writ­ten many pub­li­ca­tions on the topic.

Many horses who crib wear an anti-crib­bing col­lar to pre­vent this vice, but there are also diet and life­style changes to help curb the habit.

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