Notes From a Thoughtful Novice: The Riding and Training Triumphs and Tribulations of an Amateur Horsewoman
Living With a Cribber


Nothing in the horse community seems to be so universally disliked as a cribber.

Many boarding barns refuse to accept cribbers, or require them to wear a collar. They destroy fences, their teeth, and, sometimes, even themselves when they colic from sucking air (which is currently considered a myth, but more about that in a bit.) Cribbers are often devalued in price. Horses who might otherwise be talented, intelligent and delightful individuals, are crossed off the ‘yes’ list, because prospective buyers don’t want to deal with the vice.

I was on that “oh no, NEVER” list myself until I purchased an unbroke pasture horse, then realized when I tried to switch him to stall board that he was a notorious cribber. But, by that time we were VERY fond of each other, so I set about the daunting – okay, nearly impossible – task of helping this lovely horse to rid himself of this nasty habit.

PHASE 1: Panic
Owning a cribber, much like living with an alcoholic, has several phases, the first being disappointment and anger. Why does he crib? What can I do to stop him? Will my barn manager ask me to leave? Will he have to be choked to death by one of those ugly collars? Who will EVER buy this animal, with this disgusting habit? After getting myself worked up into a full-blown panic attack, I had to step back and look at the problem realistically. Cribbing is a vice, but it’s not the end of the world.

Browsing the web, I found numerous testimonials from owners who have champion show horses, tried and true trail horses, successful racehorses and award-winning hunter-jumpers. All cribbers, but their owners have chosen to live with their cribbing because their horses are otherwise so outstanding in every other way. It’s that same competitive attitude and intelligence that sometimes causes these wonderful horses to stress to the point of cribbing.

But, I didn’t have a performance horse. He was definitely a rock star in my eyes, but what did he have to stress about? I gave him everything a horse could want – plenty of turnout in a grass pasture with friends, oversized stall with open stall guards so he could see other horses, clean bedding, knee deep in hay, tasty feed and LOTS of treats. He didn’t have to work hard either, just be my buddy and give me a ride around the arena a couple times a week. Well, that’s where we started anyhow.

PHASE 2: Research scientist
Being completely obsessive when presented with a problem, I searched and researched the web for every shred of information about cribbing. I talked to vets, trainers, friends and farriers; walked through the backstretch at the local racetrack, visited horse rescue farms. Cribbers were everywhere. Because cribbing has been a known vice in horses for a very long time, I was surprised to find a study done in 1888 to see if antacid tablets could relieve cribbing – more than 100 years ago, they suspected cribbing was associated with stomach upset.

Yet, here we are in 2012, and not much progress has been made to help cribbers and their owners. In fact, the current popular opinion is to just let them crib. Trying to prevent cribbing, this train of thought suggests, is worse for the animal and actually causes more stress and thus more cribbing.

PHASE 3: Hard decisions
So, I’d done the research. As with all things “horsey,” there were many myths that needed to be deciphered before I could decide what to do with my cribber. Rather than give a running tally of all the opinions on what has or hasn’t worked for everyone else or all the torture devices used to deal with this dreaded vice, the following is a completely anecdotal account of our journey. I won’t pretend that my horse is cured or that what has worked for us will work for even one other horse out there.

First of all, letting my horse crib was not an option. I exited from three boarding barns before I finally faced the fact that I NEEDED to find some kind of mechanism to reduce his cribbing. Electric fencing should have been the sure-fire answer, but a previous barn ran hotwire for our benefit, to no avail. My horse found the side of the barn, the metal gate, even the side of the stall door to crib on.

I purchased two muzzles before I discovered he couldn’t tolerate them. Cha-ching! He ran the fence in a half-fear, half-tantrum frenzy, until the muzzle was removed, but not before he was so winded and sweaty that we feared for his life. Not just once, either.

All manner of antacid and stomach soother was purchased. I tried everything from papaya juice to Uncle’s Happy Horse Gut Protector without much measurable success. Some he liked, some he didn’t. But, frankly, he wasn’t a candidate for an ulcer – easy keeper, laid-back attitude, pasture-boarded 24/7 on 15 acres with 7 other geldings. Later, however, I found out that cribbing can distend the hindgut, which supported the theory of digestive upset causing cribbing and vice versa.

Most crib collars were NOT pleasant, and the horses I’d seen wearing them were NOT happy. I resisted purchasing a collar as long as possible, until given yet another ultimatum, and rather than switch barns again I purchased the Dare Collar, which seemed to be the kindest, and turned out to be the one that worked.

The issue did not disappear with the purchase of the collar. The barn manager and I had a completely different opinion of how tight was tight enough. We went on for a few months of nitpicking, with her cinching his collar tighter, and me letting it out a notch – until October, when my horse colicked.

Several people at the barn reported seeing my gelding latched on the fence all day long, sucking wind, until about 6 p.m. when one of the barn helpers noticed my food monger laying on the ground while the rest of his herd enjoyed their evening hay literally around him. Even though he had a mild gas colic and he was up and around by the time the vet arrived I was devastated, to say the least. Sucking air may not have caused his colic, but it was certainly a contributor of some kind.

The decision was made to bring him into a stall at night to monitor his hay/feed/supplement intake, even though being in a stall might cause him more stress and lead to even more aggressive cribbing. The stall was stripped of wall-hung feeders and braces. As a deterrent, a homemade paste of cayenne pepper and Vaseline was painted on any wood that he might latch on to and crib in his stall. Small mesh hay nets were provided to help prevent boredom and extend feeding time.

But, the hardest decision was to tighten his collar – short of choking him to death, but tight enough that he really could not crib comfortably. It was sad to see him standing for hours beside his favorite cribbing post, head down, eyes half closed, while his pals grazed.

PHASE 4: The Breakthrough
Pouting periods became shorter as he became accustomed to his collar, and he finally joined his herd for grazing. If it was latched on the correct hole, he rarely cribbed, but he couldn’t lift his head much higher than his withers or reach a fly on his back or scratch a back leg without discomfort. We humans made sacrifices too. The barn manager rescheduled evening hay feedings, waiting until my horse had been retrieved from the pasture and tucked away in his stall; otherwise he was difficult to catch. I paid more for a stall, beet pulp and ration balancer, not to mention the dreadfully expensive digestive aid to reduce gas, and supplements to reduce inflammation from stocking up while stalled.

The cayenne paste worked wonders, and eventually, we were able to remove his collar in the stall in the evenings without cribbing behavior. The hay net kept him busy for hours and extended his hay consumption long past the time when his stable mates were finished with their meals. And, as the grass became sparse and the winds frosty, my horse was easier to catch, even came running to the gate for his evening meal – to be enjoyed by himself, in the privacy and comfort of his own stall. I hadn’t really considered the herd’s competition for food as stress. However, because he doesn’t crib in his stall but still cribs in the pasture if the collar is too loose, herd dynamics had to be considered.

The most painful reality of all came when my company moved 47 miles away from my home and, due to the extended commute, I had to reduce my barn visits from almost every day to weekends. In my absence, my horse’s stress level took a nosedive. His anticipation of my visit and treats was actually contributing to his cribbing behavior! In the following weeks, he became calmer, happier and more willing to work, and the barn manager stopped complaining about his cribbing, because he wasn't. The quality of our relationship got better and less stressful for us both.

Does he still have to wear a collar? Absolutely. And, he still receives his digestive aid and ration balancer. He has graduated back to 24/7 turnout for the summer with no increase in cribbing behavior. With a loud nicker, he comes galloping to the gate when he sees me, but I’ve slowed down on the treats and added diversity to our weekend workouts, concentrating on making it more interesting and fun for him while expending pent-up energy in a less stressful way.

Taking no chances on the sparse fall pasture leaving his stomach empty and producing too much acid (and restarting the cribbing cycle), at the end of September my gelding will be back on stall board for the winter and I will be sure to have a healthy supply of cayenne paste. A cure? I don’t believe there is one – just management – but he’s a once-in-a-lifetime horse, so it’s worth the effort. That crazy cribber who drives me so wacky also gives me so much happiness, friendship and the quiet strength of an unspoken bond between a human and a 1200-pound animal that only a horse owner can truly appreciate. I’m glad I can still live with my cribber.

Artist Allana Kereluk grew up on a working cow/calf farm in Nebraska, surrounded by hundreds of animals. She began to draw and paint horses at an early age, was an active 4-H member, helped her veterinarian step-father with his medical practice and followed the racing form faithfully in the Sunday paper (much to her mother’s dismay.) Working full time and raising three children and two stepchildren left little time for art or horses, but finally, the last little bird left the nest and Allana returned to her childhood passions. In 2002, she became the director for the Illinios chapter of ReRun Inc, an OTTB rescue based on the East Coast. And she put her artistic skills to work by painting horses on wine glasses as a fund-raiser. She stepped down from ReRun in 2006 but, not forgetting about the thoroughbreds, she donates hand-painted glasses to equine charities each year.



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