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Crib-Biting and Windsucking
What Role Does Diet Play?
by Dr Tim Watson BVM&S, PhD, MRCVS
The Equine Veterinary Clinic, Turningshaw Farm, Houston, Renfrewshire, PA6 7BP

Key Facts:

• Crib-biting and windsucking are abnormal behaviours associated with increased risk of colic and stomach ulcers.

• Boredom, stress, inadequate forage and excessive concentrate feeding contribute to their development.

• Ensuring constant access to hay, haylage or forage blocks will reduce these behaviours by increasing the amount of time spent feeding.

• Alfalfa may provide additional benefit by helping neutralise stomach acids.

Windsucking and crib-biting are stereotypical behaviours, recognised by horse owners as vices, that affect between 2% and 11% of horses. Animals that crib-bite characteristically grab a stable door, gate or fence post with their teeth and tense their neck muscles. Windsucking is very similar but does not involve holding onto an object. Both behaviours are accompanied by a grunting sound and the swallowing of air.

Animals that display these vices are more likely to suffer colic, struggle to maintain body condition and have stomach ulcers. Crib-biting also causes abnormal wearing of the incisor teeth as well as damage to stables and fences. There are also concerns, albeit unfounded, that the behaviour may ‘spread’ to other horses and ponies on the yard.

The reason why horses crib-bite or windsuck is unknown. Potential reasons include genetic factors, since these vices are more common in Thoroughbreds, Arabs and Quarter horses, underlying gastrointestinal disease, and boredom or stress. Diet may also play an important part with inadequate forage and/or excessive concentrate feeding contributing.

Recent research has focused on how diet, stomach ulcers and these behaviours are related. Animals that crib-bite are more likely to have stomach ulcers than those that don’t, and treatment of the ulcers results in a reduction in crib-biting.

Dietary modifications designed to alleviate stomach ulcers, which include feeding a high fibre ration, also appear to lessen crib-biting and result, at least in foals, in a more naturally inquisitive and calmer temperament than when a diet rich in starch and sugars is fed.

Key to preventing crib-biting and windsucking is to ensure a constant supply of hay or haylage when a horse is stabled. This allows the expression of normal feeding behaviour, leaving less time and inclination to develop or indulge in these repetitive vices. Constant chewing of forage also increases the production of saliva, helping neutralise stomach acids and prevent the formation of ulcers.

Using small mesh or double hay nets, as well as providing some or all of the forage as Halley’s blox, prolong foraging activity and reduce monotony. So-called ‘boredom busting’ and ‘trickle feeding’ toys can also help.

In animals prone to weight gain, it may be more appropriate to feed hay than haylage as it takes longer to eat. Using haynets with a small mesh, or even using two nets, can also slow the rate of consumption and increase the amount of time spent chewing. Forage ‘blox’, like those produced by Halley’s Feeds, can also prolong foraging activity.

Additional benefit may be obtained from feeding alfalfa – which is found in Greengold alfalfa and Alfagrass from Halley’s Feeds. Alfalfa has been found to be more effective at neutralising stomach acids and preventing ulcers than standard hay. This appears to stem from the fact that alfalfa is richer in protein and calcium, and contains more of the acid-neutralising fibre lignin.

Concentrate feeds high in starch and sugar should be avoided. Instead, products that are rich in fibre and fat should be fed. The high oil content of such feeds also helps prevent stomach ulcers by slowing the rate at which the stomach empties of food.


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