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Cribbing, also know as wind sucking, is a common problem in horses that are stabled all the time or that are constantly under stress. Experts in horse behavior believe that the start of the problem is usually boredom when horses are confined to small spaces for long periods of time, then it may actually evolve into a habit or obsessive compulsive type behavior for the horse as a response to or way of dealing with stress. In rare cases there may be health issues, especially excessive acidity in the stomach that can be noted with cribbing, but whether it is the cause or the result of the behavior is still being debated.
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Cribbing involves the horse biting onto a ledge, side of a feed bin or almost any other surface and then drawing in air through the mouth and swallowing it. Typically the horse pulls back on the surface and really arches his or her neck while they are gulping air. In most cases a loud, guttural grunting sound is evident when the horse is cribbing. Some horses will also chew on the wooden areas of their stalls either while cribbing or afterwards. Horses that just chew on the wood are not truly cribbing, but it will still eventually lead to health problems.
The obsessive behavior of cribbing is problematic for several reasons. The most obvious is that it will wear down and possibly damage the teeth, depending on the types of surfaces the horse is grabbing onto. Many horses crib excessively and this is very damaging to the front teeth, leading to broken and chipped teeth as well as tooth loss. The muscles of the neck may also be severely damaged, resulting in problems in movement and muscle spasms in the neck.
Another problem with cribbing has to do with the intake of air into the digestive system. Since horses that are stabled are fed more dried foods rather than moist foods, they are more prone to various types of colic or digestive pains and blockages. Additional volumes of air in the digestive tract cause more pressure and build up of gas, resulting in increasing the likelihood that colic from gas as well as problems with proper digestion will occur.
Horses that are provided with lots of pasture time and are in the company of other horses will not usually develop a cribbing problem or behavior, it is almost exclusively seen in stabled horses. Changing the routine for the horse and providing lots of turn out time, regular exercise, companionship and providing attention is usually a great way to stop the behavior or prevent it from starting. Some horses will even play with a large ball or rope toy in their stall or paddock that is far healthier than developing the cribbing problem. With horses that are chronic cribbers there are special restraint harnesses and even surgical procedures that limit the way that the horses can use the muscles in their neck to actually crib. These are only used when all other attempts to correct the problem have proven ineffective.
In rare cases cribbing may be caused by a nutritional problem in the diet. Checking the feed and watching for any other signs of poor diet such as weight loss, poor coat or skin condition or sudden changes in behavior is also important if cribbing has started recently with no changes in routine or added stress on the horse.
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