A SPECIAL POST BY MARIJKE VAN DE WATER, B.Sc., DHMS, Equine Health & Nutrition Specialist
Cribbing – Vice or Pain?
Cribbing is the term we use to describe the behavior wherein horses grasp stationary objects with their upper teeth, arch their necks and swallow or suck in air. Cribbing, although on occasion is habitual and/or behavioral, is almost always a sign of stomach distress.
Horses most often begin to crib in an effort to alleviate stomach discomfort from indigestion, nausea and/or burning. These symptoms are frequently caused by the overfeeding of starches and/or proteins which, over time, creates excess gastric (stomach) fermentation. This hampers both the digestive and buffering capabilities of the stomach and increases levels of unfriendly bacteria and acids damaging the interior of the stomach, resulting in gastritis, gas, acid, nausea and feelings of premature fullness.
Not only do horses find the sucked in wind comforting and cooling, but the jaw movement of cribbing buffers and lubricates the upset stomach by inducing saliva production. These gastric cribbers are often observed cribbing during and after eating. Excessive tongue action and licking motions are also signs of stomach discomfort.
Remember that horses can be masters at hiding the true reason for their discomfort. Imagine if you will that you were suffering from heartburn, indigestion, nausea or pain and that you were not only unable to communicate your discomfort to anyone, but that you were also unable to find relief. Depending on your level of frustration, you might pace or paw; you might become restless, irritable, and/or tired; you might lick cool objects and/or inhale cool air deeply and frequently. You might even sink your teeth into a piece of wood to steady yourself in an attempt to seek relief through endorphin production. But then again, a well-meaning friend might cover the wood with metal so that all you can do is lick it. Or someone might wrap a tight collar around your neck to stop you from getting relief from the cool air and from the acid buffering effects of jaw movement. These inhumane practices originate from ignorance about the equine digestive process, and from human misinterpretation of equine behaviour, as we fail to understand our horses’ efforts to communicate with us.
Many times I have seen cribbing abruptly stop when horse owners eliminate a particular kind of grain, commercial feed, or hay that is too rich in either protein (eg. alfalfa) or sugars from the feeding program. These feeds can precipitate cribbing by overloading the capabilities of the equine digestive system. Positive feed changes combined with the appropriate digestive supplements restore digestive function and give a horse long-needed relief.
It is also true that horses can crib as a stress response to stall confinement, boredom, isolation, and/or emotional stress. However, since we know that stress is directly linked to digestive disorders, we must question whether behavioral cribbing is an attempt to alleviate mal-digestion and gastric pain as caused by stress, or if behavioral cribbing is an attempt to alleviate the stress itself, through endorphin production.
There has been no incidence of cribbing reported in wild horse bands. Amazing what a natural diet and a little freedom can do…
Nutritional Cribbing Program
Discontinue all grain, alfalfa and sugar-rich hay
Feed frequently – horses have to chew all day!
Reduce stress levels
• Magnesium Citrate – 3,000 mg daily
(buffers excess acid, natural pain reliever, calms stress and nervous tension)
• Pro-Colon (probiotics) – 50,000 – 60,000 billion CFU’s daily
(replenishes friendly bacteria, supports digestion & immunity)
• Folic Acid – 9 mg daily
(stimulates stomach digestion; helps to heal stomach membranes)
• Gastricol (homeopathic medicine) – One dose (5-10 pump sprays) – twice daily
(treats bloating, gas and colic; supports optimum digestion and liver function)
• Calm & Cool herbal blend – add for very nervous cribbers – ¼ cup daily
(calms and restores nerves)
This is an excerpt from Marijke’s new book “Healing Horses: Their Way!”
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