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Q: My 15hh eight-year-old gelding has just started crib biting. This has started since I moved him to a new livery yard where there are lots of other horses. Previously, I kept him at home and he lived out all day and was brought in at night. However, because of work commitments I have had to put him on full livery.

At the new yard he only has four hours a day restricted grazing – could this have caused him to start crib biting? Does it indicate a medical condition and are there any alternative therapies I could try?

Tim Couzens replies: Stereotypic behaviour, such as crib biting, is usually a stress response to changes in management or environmental conditions. Typically, as in this case, the behaviour has been precipitated by a management change – moving the horse from a constant grazing situation with a companion, to a period of restricted grazing with long hours of stabling.

Stereotypic behaviour is monotonous and repetitive, with no apparent purpose and derives from an array of behaviour patterns within the horse’s normal repertoire, though the behaviour may be copied from one horse to another.

Such behaviour is slow to develop and it is sometimes possible to spot behavioural changes early on, particularly in young horses. Once the behavioural pattern has been established it is often difficult to reverse even though the original stress situation may have been removed.

Managing stress

Stress situations including boredom, frustration and constant fear can lead to a situationsimilar to depression.

Serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for making us feel happy, can become depleted under such conditions, particularly when there is a lack of the amino acid tryptophan which affects the uptake of serotonin and acts as a precursor for production of serotonin itself.

Preventing crib biting in the past involved the use of various gadgets including a cribbing collar.

The problem was also controlled by reducing the number of surfaces that the horse had to chew on by using grilles and painting surfaces with creosote. Although these measures may appear to stop the problem, they do nothing to address the underlying cause.

A better approach would be, where practical, to deal with any management problems and to provide more social contact, grazing time and distractions within the stable, such as hanging rubber balls or other toys.

Another approach, best used in conjunction with environmental enrichment, is to use complementary medicine.

Flower remedies, herbal remedies and homoeopathy have all proved useful in dealing with behavioural problems such as crib biting.

If you are using two different types of remedies together, for example a flower remedy and ahomoeopathic one, leave around fifteen minutes between treatments.

Flower remedies

Use no more than five remedies in combination and dose with five drops twice daily.

Try:

  • St John’s wort, which will help relieve depression and stress – particularly environmental stress.
  • Garlic and echinacea, which strengthen the immune system, often weakened by stress.
  • Honeysuckle, which helps the horse let go of the past and relieves ‘homesickness’.
  • Walnut, to help a horse adjust to new surroundings.
  • Agrimony, for anxiety.
  • Valerian, for stress.
  • Snapdragon, specifically for crib biting.

Herbal remedies

There are a number of proprietary herbal remedies available either as dried mixes or tinctures diluted in cider vinegar.

Try ones which include valerian, skullcap, hops, vervain, chamomile and red poppy. All these herbs have a calming effect and will help to relieve your horse’s stress by reducing anxiety.

Homoeopathy

Homoeopathic treatments can be given either as tablets or powders twice daily. The ideal potency to use is 30c.

For crib biting, try:

  • Lycopodium, for nervy horses who show digestive troubles and where boredom is the suspected cause.
  • Argentum nitricum, where the horse seems agitated.
  • Sepia, particularly for mares where irritability is a feature.
  • Chamomile, to help calm a restless or irritable horse.

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