How well you understand cribbing depends in large part on whether you have had firsthand experience caring for a horse who indulges in the behavior.
That's the finding of a University of Liverpool study designed to analyze the effects of "lay epidemiology" on horse care and the dissemination of veterinary information.
The research focused on cribbing--a compulsive behavior in which a horse repeatedly grabs an object with his incisor teeth and sucks in gulps of air--because it often evokes strong feelings among horse-people, explains Debra Archer, BVMS, PhD, MRCVS. "I have some major concerns about the welfare of horses who crib based on their management, which is often dictated by people's conceptions and misconceptions of what causes and stops cribbing," she says. "The role that lay networks play in this really interests me, especially in this age of the Internet--we wanted to know how owners think about things and why veterinary advice is not always sought or believed."
Archer and her colleagues conducted in-depth interviews with 30 horse owners, which included professionals and hobbyists. Roughly half the respondents had firsthand experience caring for a cribber. The interviews were recorded, transcribed and analyzed according to academic standards for sociological research.
The data showed that people who had never cared for a cribber believed the myth that the behavior is learned from other horses. "There is no scientific evidence that cribbers learn from each other," says Archer. "It is just a myth that seems to persist despite no hard evidence." When asked how they knew cribbing was learned, the respondents invariably indicated they heard it from other people.
On the other hand, respondents who had cared for cribbers were much less inclined to believe the behavior was learned and often cited the behavior of their own horses as evidence cribbing is not spread by observation.
Archer is concerned about the potential impact of misinformation about cribbers: "People are often embarrassed about their cribbing horse, at least this is certainly the case in the U.K., and it reduces the animal's economic value. I am also amazed by owners' and veterinarians' reactions to horses when they are cribbing. People seem to find it very disturbing in some way and will wave at the horses' faces, hit them, put bars across the door and at worst put collars with spikes or even electrify the stable so horses get an electric shock when they grasp a surface."
In addition to physiological studies into the causes of certain behaviors, Archer says continued sociological research into caretakers' perceptions is critical: "A lot of this type of work has been done in the medical field---for instance, looking at attitudes of patients after having a heart attack and finding that people start to ignore medical advice at a certain stage, form their own beliefs and revert to their usual behavior. The fact that the medical profession has been utilizing sociological research for some time reflects its importance, and it has altered how information is given to human patients. There is no reason why this cannot be extended to the veterinary profession. Owners are perfectly intelligent people, but how you go about presenting information to them is important in whether they will actually hear and accept the message to ultimately act on it."
This article originally appeared in EQUUS 296