There’s another alternative on the market, but is it right for you and your horse?
Most barn owners know the sound right away—a hurried, determined munching as a horse works his teeth along the boards in his stall or paddock. Some barn managers won’t board a horse who cribs, and some buyers won’t go look at one.
Cribbing is one of several “stable vices” that confined or frustrated horses sometimes acquire. These repetitive actions stimulate a release of endorphins in the body, giving the horse a sense of wellbeing.
Cribbing is a hard habit to break; the horse becomes addicted to the internal chemicals and periodically goes through these motions whenever he needs a “fix.” He grabs any available surface with his top incisors—pressing the teeth into the object (manger, fence rail, feeder, etc.) so he can arch his neck and gulp air in through his mouth.
This annoying habit damages stalls and fences and wears down the horse’s top incisors. Cribbing straps and collars thwart the neck position required for this action but are only a temporary solution; the horse immediately cribs again when the strap is removed, and the strap may rub the hair away, leaving a mark.
Surgery is more effective, removing portions of the neck muscles required for cribbing, but not always successful. Laser surgery to remove a portion of the nerves to those neck muscles is more successful, but many horsemen are reluctant to choose this expensive option.
Another alternative that is generating discussion among some horse owners is the temporary use of gum rings or cribbing rings, but this method isn’t a procedure to be undertaken lightly.
Chris Ray, DVM, of Equine Sports Medicine and Surgery in Weatherford, Texas, installs cribbing rings, using hog rings inserted through the gum tissue between the incisors.
Ray has done this procedure for five years, on about 50 horses. Hog nose rings are made of stiff wire about 2 millimeters thick and about an inch or so in diameter—somewhat triangular in shape. They are open before you install them and then squeezed together. The sharp ends can be easily put through the tissue (nose of a hog or the gums of a horse) when squeezing them together to create the complete loop.
“With the rings through the gum tissue, they stay in fairly well in a mature horse,” said Ray. “The rings may not stay in as well in a young horse because the teeth aren’t as long and the space between the teeth is different.”
To install a ring through the gum, Ray sedates the horse and uses topical anesthetic on the gum (holding a little anesthetic-soaked cotton against the gum for a moment before inserting the ring).
“It’s very fast—just a squeeze of the pliers to put the ring through the gum. Once you establish the hole, it doesn’t hurt the horse much; it’s quite like piercing your ears,” he said. “But if the ring does fall out, you can put another one in through the same hole. If a horse loses one, it’s much easier on the horse to put one right back in, while there’s still a callous around the hole.”
If the owner is not aware that a ring has pulled out, the hole heals up and a new one would have to be created to install a new ring. Some horses still try to crib or bite on objects with the rings in, which may bend or spread the rings, and they come apart and fall out.
“We usually put in three rings—one in the middle (between the central incisors) and one on each side [between the corner tooth and the lateral incisor],” said Ray. “The ones on the sides generally stay in better. Many horses will wallow out the middle ring but can’t get the side rings out, and these still inhibit cribbing. It all depends on the individual horse.”
He hasn’t had a horse continue to crib as long as the rings are in, but some horses make keeping the rings in difficult. “If a horse gets the rings out two or three times, then you might want to try putting a ring through the bone; it might stay in better,” he said.
A Different Procedure
Dr. Justin High, part owner of a six-person practice at Reata Equine Hospital in Weatherford, Texas, has been inserting rings into horses for two years and finds it usually works.
But he doesn’t use hog rings because he said they tend to come out too readily. “Many of the horses I do have already had hog rings, and they’ve come out. The horses go back to cribbing pretty fast,” he said.
He uses slightly larger rings—light-weight aluminum bull rings that are 1.25 inches in diameter—and anchors them in the bone rather than the gum.
“I have done a couple of really large horses in which I used a 2-inch traditional brass bull ring. But for most horses this would be way too big. The size of the horse and length of the teeth is what determines the size of the ring you’d use. The placement is very important, regarding whether it will be effective, as well as not being an obstruction to the horse,” he said.
In High’s procedure of placing the ring through the bone, the horse is put under general anesthesia but goes home from the clinic the same day.
“The way I install a ring is to drill a hole in the incisive bone between the two central incisors—about halfway between the top of the teeth and where the gum reflects on the lip. The hole starts on the outside of the gum tissue, and the drill bit goes through the bone and enters the inside of the mouth,” he said.
He uses hinged bull rings, which go through the bone and then close back up, with a screw to hold it shut.
“In my mind, the correct placement of the ring is where the inside of the ring contacts the table surface of the upper teeth, so there is no gap between the teeth and the ring. Then every time that horse tries to crib or chew on something, it hits that ring and puts an impact on the bone, before the teeth hit,” High said.
He has installed rings in about 20 horses, and almost all of them have quit the habit, except for three older horses.
“I typically won’t do any horse that’s older than 8 to 10 years of age; if he’s been cribbing that long, there’s very little chance that anything you do [cribbing rings or surgery] will actually halt it,” said High.
Not For Every Horse
These rings are not meant to be left in the mouth indefinitely, only long enough to persuade the horse to stop cribbing, generally two to three months in High’s experience. But still, he doesn’t recommend that owners do this on a whim.
“I am very selective about the horses I do this on, regarding age, and I also try to make sure the owner realizes this is a last resort. If owners have tried all the other options they can, such as cribbing collars and masks, keeping the horses turned out more and not confined in stalls, etc., then this can be an alternative to surgery—which may cost $2,000 to $2,500. Installing a ring costs less than a quarter of the expense of a traditional surgery,” he said.
High said he always tries to make sure people understand the procedure. “Some people won’t want to do it, and I try to encourage other ways of dealing with these horses before we do this,” he said. “In my mind this is the last option. If the horse doesn’t respond to this, the owner must realize the horse is always going to be a cribber and will have to learn to live with it.”
If the horse doesn’t return to cribbing after the ring is removed, the ring doesn’t need to be replaced, and the hole in the gum will heal within five to seven days if kept clean. Eventually the drill site in the bone will fill in also, said High.
“But if the horse goes back to cribbing during that first week the ring is out, I don’t have to re-drill the hole to put the ring back in,” said High. “I just open up the mucosal tissue, and this can be done with the horse standing, under sedation, with local anesthesia.”
But if the ring does break the habit, it’s a short-term method, and the horse won’t have to wear a cribbing strap the rest of his life.
“In the horses I’ve installed rings, every one has gone back to training or a show career. With the ring correctly placed, you can put a bit in their mouth and continue training or working the horse,” High said.
High usually puts the horse on bute and systemic antibiotics for a few days, since he will be quite sore for the first three to five days after the procedure. The horse’s owner also needs to take extra care during this time.
“The gum tissue around the ring needs to be cleaned a couple times a day, since you don’t want this to become infected,” High said.
He instructs owners to clean the area where the ring enters the gum, wiping it gently with a wet paper towel and making sure no feed material is caught in it.
“The horse should not be fed grain for a few days because this area will be sore. Most horses will graze or eat hay, but it may take a day or two for them to adjust to having the ring there,” he said.
If a horse is not back on full feed within two or three days and is having a hard time getting adjusted to the ring, then High would recommend taking it out. “I don’t want it to cause a problem,” he said. “So far, I have not had any horses that did not tolerate the ring.”
When the horse goes home after the installation of a ring, he must be in a safe environment. “You can’t turn the horse out in a pasture with wire fence, trees, or any other things the horse might catch the ring on,” said High.
If the horse catches that ring on something and pulls back, this could create a catastrophic injury, even breaking the jaw. The horse needs to be out of a stall, if possible (since he’s not so apt to want to crib if he’s not confined), but it should be a pasture with safe fencing.
“Fortunately, I haven’t had a horse come back to me with an injury from catching a ring, and I haven’t been aware of any type of injury from this, but there’s always that risk,” he said.
Of the 20 horses High has done so far, six of those are still wearing the rings and are close to the point having them taken out. “It’s not a procedure that every horseman who owns a cribber will want to do,” he said. “But sometimes it takes a drastic method to solve a significant problem.”