Feeding hay before grains appears to reduce the intensity of cribbing episodes, said Louise Nicholls, MSc candidate specializing in crib-biting at the equine science program in Warwirckshire College in England. She described her study during a poster session at the 9th Annual International Society for Equitation Science, held July 18-20 at the University of Delaware, in Newark.
“We saw that when they were fed hay first, they still cribbed, but not for as long each time,” she said. “This is probably related to a reduced level of gastric pain and anxiety, as the forage will comfort their stomachs while they’re waiting on the grain.”
Concentrated feeds are more irritating than hay on equine stomachs, Nicholls added. The cribbing episodes could be spurred by the pain or the anticipation of that pain as the animal tries to cope with it, she explained.
In her study, Nicholls examined seven cribbers as they were each put through two different feeding regimens: feed 15 minutes before hay, and hay 15 minutes before feed. In the one hour after feeding, horses had shorter crib-biting episodes when they received hay first. The number of episodes was also slightly reduced in the hay-before-feed program, but the difference was not scientifically significant, she said.
She also noted that it took the horses longer to eat the feed if it was given before hay, suggesting that it might have been more painful on an empty stomach than on a forage-lined stomach. The feed bucket’s location seemed to make a difference as well: When the bucket was closer to the hay, cribbing frequencies and durations decreased—perhaps because the horse preferred to chew on the hay, if it was nearby, than a hard surface, she said.
“This is really a simple but clearly effective management tool that we can do to help our cribbers be more comfortable,” Nicholls said. “You’re not likely to ever get a cribber to stop cribbing completely—and I believe it’s cruel to stop a horse from cribbing if he feels that he needs to—but if we can reduce that need by making him not seek to do it, then we will be improving his welfare.”
Cribbing is a stress reaction in about 5% of domestic horses that releases endorphins—calming hormones—into the horse’s system, said Nicholls. While it appears to help them cope with stress, it also puts them at greater risk of periodontal disease and colic. “The goal is not to force them to stop, but to find ways to make them need it less,” she added.
Nicholls said future studies will examine whether cribbers that are regularly fed hay before grains will crib less before feeding because of reduced anxiety (knowing that the hay is coming first).