Q: My Thoroughbred gelding has cribbed for the seven years I’ve had him. He will not engage in this vice if I keep a very tight cribbing strap on him, but the strap rubs him bald
behind his ears. 

A friend recently mentioned “rings” that can be put between a horse’s teeth to stop him from cribbing. Do these work? Is there any downside? I would really like to not have to use the
strap anymore.  
— Alice Thompson; Baton Rouge, Louisiana

A: Cribbing—the vice of biting hard objects with the teeth and gulping air—is a problem we would all like a solution for. Most methods currently in use to curtail this behavior (modified stalls, cribbing straps, shock collars, muzzles) either physically prevent the horse from cribbing or make it uncomfortable for him to do so.

Cribbing rings are a relatively new approach. These C-shaped wires are also called “hog rings” because they are used in pigs’ snouts to prevent rooting; in horses, they are inserted into the gums of the upper jaw between the front incisors. The rings are slid over the teeth and then tightened down into the gums. Anything that touches those wires hurts the horse, and the expectation is that the pain will prevent him from grabbing hard objects with his teeth and cribbing. These rings usually fall off over time and have to be replaced.

However, the wires leave visible wounds in the gums. In fact, citing the potential for persistent pain and perio-dontal disease, the American Association of Equine Practitioners issued a public statement in July 2007 opposing the use of cribbing rings in horses.

Please think through your attempts to stop your horse’s cribbing. New research suggests that there may actually be a neurologic reason that horses start to crib. In those predisposed to this condition, the cribbing might begin spontaneously or as a result of stress. The problem with all of the “treatments” for cribbing is that none address these causes. Even when the activity is thwarted, the brain still wants to engage in the behavior, and this drive will eventually overcome almost any technique for stopping it.

This research raises the issue of whether it is in the horse’s best interests and welfare to stop a behavior that has such a strong internal drive without addressing its mental component. Certainly, horses who continue to crib unabated do experience health problems, such as tooth wear, weight loss and colic.

So the discussion has focused on the question of which approach is more humane. I would suggest that you weigh the pros and cons of your horse’s situation with your veterinarian.

Bonnie Beaver, DVM
Texas A&M University
College Station, Texas