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When a Cribbing Horse Breaks the Deal


Pet Column for the week of August 24, 2009

Related information:


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

Source - Tom Thornbury
Source - W. Michael Karlin, DVM
Man o' War is one of the most famous horses in the history of thoroughbred racing. Though his full brother, Playfellow, who earned the highest sale price of the season decades ago, is famous for a very different reason. In June 1921 the title of the New York Times article read, "Playfellow Not Sound…[Owner] Requests Return of $115,000." Playfellow's unsoundness was not a lameness issue. He was a cribber.

The highly-publicized case remained in the headlines for over a year as lawyers battled back and forth in the courtroom. While James Johnson, the previous owner of Playfellow swore that he never saw the horse crib, Harry Sinclair, who paid the exorbitant sale price for the horse, noticed early on that the animal performed the behavior.

Dr. Mike Karlin is an equine surgery resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. He explains that, "cribbing is a vice where horses place their upper incisors on an object and arch their neck and pull back." Many horses will inhale air during the process, but if they do so without placing their teeth on a fixed object it is called "wind sucking," something that Playfellow was also alleged to do.

Experts aren't really sure why horses crib, but there are several hypotheses. "Some believe that horses learn the behavior when they are stalled and that it is a sign of boredom or frustration," notes Dr. Karlin. But even when a stalled, cribbing horse is turned out to pasture, they often continue to crib on the fencing or water troughs. It's also interesting to note that some experts think cribbing can be a pleasurable sensation for horses and act as a stress reliever.

Tom Thornbury is the associate director of sales at the famous Keeneland Thoroughbred Auction Company in Lexington, Ky. In one of their most recent auctions, the January Horses of All Ages sale, almost $33 million came in the door, and that's just for one sale. If a purchaser notices that the thoroughbred they just paid a bundle for is a cribber and that was not known at the time of sale, Mr. Thornbury says, "buyers have 48 hours to notify us with a signed veterinary certificate that the horse is a cribber."

At that point Keeneland notifies the consignor that a claim has been made. The seller may opt to negotiate a reduction in sale price, or can provide their own veterinary certificate stating the horse is not a cribber. If buyer and seller still disagree, Keeneland hires a third veterinarian to inspect the horse. If that veterinarian finds the thoroughbred to be a cribber, the horse is returned to the consignor and the purchase price returned to the buyer.

At Keeneland, they go out of their way to make sure buyers are aware of a horse's problems. "All cribbers are announced during the auction," explains Mr. Thronbury, "the last thing you hear when the auctioneer calls the horse is, 'this horse is a cribber.'" In addition, the red light on the overhead announcement board flashes "CRIBBER." Even with those precautions in place, a horse that previously was not known to be a cribber may end up displaying the fault shortly after purchase. "It's rare for a horse to be returned for cribbing, but it does happen," notes Mr. Thornbury.

If you have questions about cribbing or other stable vices please contact your local veterinarian.