If you have a cribber, chances are that horse is going to colic sometime during the period you own him. Not every cribber colics, but the two conditions often go hand in hand. Most scientific papers on colic include cribbing as one of its risk factors. The mystery is no one knows why cribbers are prone to colic.
Does gut pain cause a horse to crib, or does cribbing cause gut problems?
“We see a lot of horses with some form of intestinal disease that causes pain, and they don't start to crib to seek relief,” said Dr. David Freeman, director of the Island Whirl Equine Colic Research Laboratory at the University of Florida. “I think it's more an association in which the cribbing causes colic. At least that makes more sense to me.”
Freeman's research in 2004 determined that horses with strangulation of the small intestine in an area called the epiploic foramen often were cribbers. The epiploic foramen is a small opening between the upper right side of the small intestine behind the horse's liver. The opening is large enough to accommodate two adult fingers. When strangulation occurs, it cuts off the blood supply and the gut tissue dies, releasing toxins into the bloodstream. Emergency surgery is necessary to save the horse's life.
“The majority of horses we see with that type of colic are cribbers,” Freeman said. “In fact, if we're presented with a horse with signs of small intestinal obstruction and that horse is a cribber, that would be very helpful for us in making the diagnosis, specifically an epiploic foramen obstruction.”
Freeman theorized that two factors could cause this type of colic: windsucking while cribbing and the change in position of the abdomen caused by the physical motion of cribbing.
“We think they swallow air when they crib, and that gets into the gastrointestinal tract,” he explained. “If they swallow enough air, the thought is that will cause air distension in the gastrointestinal tract. In the case of the horse with the epiploic foramen entrapment, we think it could be a combination of swallowing air, and now there's air distention in the small intestine, but also the very specific sort of maneuver they make with their rib cage could direct the intestine up toward the epiploic foramen.”
Sixty-eight percent of the American horses in Freeman's study and 49 percent of the study's British horses were found to be established cribbers. They were not normal horses that in a relatively short period of time started to crib and then developed strangulation of the epiploic foramen, he said.
Some researchers believe cribbing may start with the horse's attempt to ease the pain of gastric ulcers. Horses are browsers, and nature intends them to eat small amounts of forage continuously, unlike the way we manage them by feeding them two or three grain meals each day. Additionally, grain stimulates production of the hormone gastrin, which increases gastric acid production. During performance, muscles that support the horse's stomach tighten, squeezing the digestive acid into the top of the stomach where the cells in the lining are more prone to erosion, setting the stage for development of gastric ulcers.
“There is a thought that cribbing might contribute to gastric ulcers,” Freeman said. “Gastric ulcers cause some pain that's relieved by cribbing. Again, that needs to be substantiated. Maybe it's the other way around and cribbing causes gastric ulcers.
“It might be a good idea to check cribbers to ensure they don't have gastric ulcers.”
Difficult to Stop
Cribbing is a particularly destructive behavior, for both the horse and its surroundings.
“It's not just colic that makes it a bad disease,” Freeman said. “These horses will destroy fencing. They might not do well because they spend a lot of time filling themselves with air instead of eating. They can destroy the inside of the stall by the very act. There's a thought that they might start other horses cribbing, so there's a copycat element to it, but that's never been proven.”
Antacid supplements, electric fence wire along favored cribbing spots, a plethora of anti-crib collars, and other devices intended to stop cribbing often do not work. Surgery also is an option.
“The surgery will certainly stop them,” Freeman said. “There are different surgeries, and they do have success. The question is for how long is it successful? That hasn't been fully established, but that's the important part of it. If it's a temporary interruption of the habit, that may not be good enough. But if it's permanent or long-term and it doesn't have any other adverse effects on the horse, that might be good.”
The ideal solution is to prevent the horse from cribbing at the very beginning. Freeman suggested introducing anything that relieves boredom into the horse's environment and routine, in addition to providing a good-quality diet, pasture turnout, and adequate exercise.
“All these things could reduce the frequency of cribbing or keep the horse from starting to crib,” Freeman said.
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