Bizarre as many stereotypies seem, they are thought to originate from a normal behaviour that cannot be satisfied in the current environment. The thwarted attempt to satisfy this goal results in an abbreviated version of what was once a purposeful and normal activity. As the stress is prolonged, the behaviour becomes repetitive, invariant, and chronic. Cribbing seems to originate around frustrated feeding behaviour.
Horses, designed to spend 16 to 20 hours a day grazing with their herd over huge territories on relatively poor-quality forage, have difficulty when housed alone in stalls and fed high-quality hay and grain at set intervals. Feed is consumed rapidly, leaving the horse with nothing to do. The motivational drive to graze remains but no longer has an outlet for expression, making your horse vulnerable to the development of stereotypies.
As far as trying to get him to stop – don’t. Stereotypies are thought to become reinforcing over time and independent of the original stressor that caused them. This reinforcing quality may explain why you will find a horse in an idyllic situation with his buddies on a vast, lush green pasture, standing at the fence cribbing!
Although annoying to us, cribbing may help your horse cope with the environmental pressures he faces. Research suggests that stereotypies help horses relieve stress by reducing heart rate and cortisol levels and releasing beta endorphins which provide a calming and pleasant “high” for the cribber. Cribbing also appears to relieve stomach discomfort caused by ulcers (an ubiquitous condition for sport horses) by increasing salivary flow and temporarily easing stomach pressure.
The common wisdom that cribbing causes colic is more likely because both cribbing and colic are related to ulcers, which, when treated, often reduces the occurrence of both. In short, cribbing helps horses cope with the environments of confinement, and usually solitary confinement, that we have created for them – an environment for which they were never designed to handle.
Cribbing “cures” include collars that apply pressure or spikes into the neck, electric shocks, cribbing ring piercings that apply painful pressure into the horse’s sensitive gum tissue, and even surgical removal of some neck muscles and a section of the spinal accessory nerve. Even more benign “cures” such as “humane” cribbing collars effectively stop the horse from performing the very behaviour that may alleviate his distress in a challenging environment, and are anything but humane!
Increasing your horse’s turnout time (ideally with a buddy), allowing him to touch other horses through grills or by lowering walls between stalls, and ensuring that he has a higher-fibre, less protein-rich hay for munching throughout the day will all contribute to improved welfare, even if your horse still carries the behavioural scars of his previous environment and continues to crib.
For confirmed, chronic cribbers a practical, kind, and realistic solution is to provide a “safe injection site” where they can crib safely without destroying your barn. A metal u-shaped bar, fitted with PVC piping that reduces tooth wear and stall damage, provides a very satisfactory cribbing station for a committed cribber, and will ensure your horse does not detach his water bowl and flood the barn one more time! Mounted solidly on a plywood board that can be removed, transported, and reinstalled in a horse show stall, it provides a welcome security blanket for a showing cribber on the road.