Causes of cribbing

Do some personality traits make a horse more likely to become a cribber?

QI read “What We Now Know About Cribbing” (On Behavior, EQUUS 426), and I am always interested in learning more about animal behavior. Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD, explored and discussed many possible causes—mostly environmental or man-made—for this behavior, in which a horse grips a hard surface with his upper teeth, pulls back and gulps air. I wonder if the “personality” of horses who crib has ever been studied? Dr. Houpt stated that some horse “family lines” seem more inclined to crib, which made me wonder if it might have something to do with the personalities of the individual horses.

A: You raise an interesting question: Is there a “cribbing personality”? Several studies of personality in horses have identified three major characteristics: 

• agreeableness (obedience, kindness) and sociality 

• intelligence and curiosity

• emotionality or nervousness

One of the largest studies of cribbing horses, all French Saddlebreds, revealed that dressage and high school horses were more likely to crib than those who were used for riding lessons, jumping or vaulting. This result could be interpreted to mean that something about how dressage horses are managed and trained leads to cribbing or—as you speculate—that horses with the personality to excel in dressage are also more likely to crib.

We do know that foals who mouth a lot—that is, are more curious—are more likely to crib, as are the offspring of dominant mothers. Apparently, dominant mares are more likely to terminate suckling episodes, and their foals may be food deprived. So if I had to guess at a characterization of a cribbing personality, it would be a maternally deprived Thoroughbred who is nervous and curious but also obedient.

Katherine A. Houpt, VMD, PhD

Cornell University

Ithaca, New York

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