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I just bought a four year old arabian gelding who is a cribber. Is there any way of breaking this habit?

- A. M.


Thanks for your interesting - and somewhat complex - question.

First, you need to determine if your horse is a cribber or a wood chewer. Some horses will chew on wood out of boredom; others because they have a hunger caused by a mineral deficiency. Still others simply chew wood because they like the taste. When the Lewis and Clark expedition began using Indian mountain ponies, the horses turned up their noses at the grain and meadow grass the soldiers tried to feed them. It wasn't until they were given cottonwood branches that the horses started eating.

From the journal of Captain Lewis, 12 February 1805:

"This morning was fair though cold. Thermometer 14 degrees below zero. Wind S.E. Ordered the blacksmith to shoe the horses, and some others to prepare some gears in order to send them down with three sleighs to join the hunting party, and transport the meat which they may have procured, to this place. The men whom I had sent for the meat left by Charbonneau did not return until 4 o'clock this evening.

"Drouilliard arrived with the horses about the same time. The horses appeared much fatigued. I directed some bran be given them, moistened with a little water, but to my astonishment found that they would not eat it, but preferred the bark of the cottonwood, which forms the principal article of food usually given them by their Indian masters in the winter season. For this purpose, they cause the tree to be felled by their women, and the horses feed on the boughs and bark of their tender branches. The Indians in our neighborhood are frequently pilfered of their horses by the Arikaras, Sioux, and Assiniboines, and therefore make it an invariable rule to put their horses in their lodges at night. In this situation, the only food of the horses consists of a few sticks of the cottonwood, from the size of a man's finger to that of his arm."

The first question I'd ask is, "does this horse have free access to a mineral block 24 hours a day? I know of a couple of horses who started chewing wood after their mineral block was used up -- and quit the day the block was replaced.

True cribbing is an equine equivalent of obsessive-compulsive disorder in humans, and can be just as difficult to treat. The horse doesn't even need wood to chew on - I know of a horse that routinely cribs on a metal gate, even in sub-zero temperatures! (See photo below.) The chewing and subsequent belching seems to produce endorphins - powerful chemicals that affect the brain's pleasure centers. In effect, cribbing is a sort of drug addiction for horses.

There are several ways to deal with cribbing - but no guarantees of success. In the early stages, I've seen cribbing successfully stopped with something as simple as swats to the mouth and saying "no" (which the horse seems to identify with "whoa"). There are cribbing straps on the market - some more humane than others. As a last resort, talk with your vet about the use of medications that block the effects of endorphins.

It's 10 degrees below zero F., but that doesn't stop this Thoroughbred mare from cribbing on a metal gate! Obviously, her mommy never told her not to put her tongue on a metal pipe in winter! Unforunately, she's a serious endorphin addict who will do almost anything to get her fix. Cases like this are exceptionally difficult to correct. Cribbing horse

Happy Riding!

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