Cribbing occurs when a horse takes hold of any solid object with its incisor teeth, arches its head and neck in a characteristic fashion, and contracts the muscles on the bottom of its neck. Many horses appear to swallow air while cribbing thus the common term “wind sucking”. Horses that crib overdevelop the muscles on the bottom of the neck and have characteristic overwear of the incisor teeth.
To call cribbing a vice is incorrect. Like many other behavioral problems, cribbing is a disease of domestication and not misbehavior. Horses evolved as highly social herd animals that wander on arid plains surviving on a low energy high fiber diet. Feral horses do not crib or exhibit any of the other stereotypies like weaving, stall walking, and tongue lolling.
Cribbing increases when the horse is stimulated like at feeding time or when meeting other familiar horses or handlers. This is not a learned behavior, so a cribber does not teach other horses to crib. However, horses that crib tend to have offspring that crib.
Does cribbing or wind sucking hurt a horse? Probably not. The air is not really swallowed so cribbing does not lead to colic. Rarely a horse will spend more time cribbing than eating and consequently lose weight.
The best treatment is to place the cribber in pasture with other horses to more closely approximate life in the wild. Cribbing collars are often used on stalled horses, but a confirmed cribber will find a way. Boredom is probably not a cause of cribbing.
If your horse cribs, you will spend lots of time explaining this behavior to others. Studies of cribbers have shown that these individuals are more likely to be alert, active, and reactive. Cribbing decreases a horse’s monetary value at the time of sale and many registered sales require the seller to declare a cribber prior to sale.
In the future, drug therapies may be developed to control cribbing and other so called stable vices. In the meantime, do not purchase a horse without watching the behavior – cribbers cannot hide for long.