|One morning, after having finished riding and cooling out my horse, I lead him back into his stall. With one last carrot and a final pat on his muscular neck, I turn to head out. That’s when I hear it, a cross between a grunt and a belch, a horrid, guttural, unmistakably heart-sinking sound emanating from my horse’s stall, a sound that can only mean one very bad thing.I flash back to one of my earliest days at the barn, watching Jackie fasten a thick leather strap that circles her horse’s head from forehead to throat. “What on earth is that?” I ask.
“It’s a cribbing strap. He’s a cribber.”
“What’s a cribber?”
“A horse that grabs hold of something solid, like his stall door, arches his neck and sucks in air,” Jackie says.
“Why, in God’s name?”
“It supposedly releases endorphins that horses can get a mild high from,” she says matter-of-factly, giving the strap a final tightening tug.
“Huh,” I say, thinking, Boy, does THAT ever look stupid. I’d hate to have a horse that has to wear one of THOSE.
Now that I have one, much to my chagrin, I go home to read up on the subject. What I learn does not make me happy. According to animal behaviorists, cribbing is a reaction to the lifestyle we have foisted upon horses in the modern age. Confinement in solitary stalls and a diet of highly concentrated grain doled out two or three times a day does not a well-adjusted horse make. It’s certainly a far cry from what nature intended, horses living in herds and free-ranging for food.
The consequences of this distorted way of life show up as anxiety, boredom, and stress. Some horses develop stomach ulcers. Some gnaw holes in their stalls. Others kick out at the walls and swing their heads from side to side in the repetitive motion known as weaving. Bored, unhappy horses wear paths in the floor boards from endlessly circling their stalls. Others paw, bite their own flanks, or crib.
The fact that cribbing is common makes it no less distressing; I now have proof that I’ve failed to provide adequately for my horse’s needs. And as a result, he is filling his time with a harmful habit that’s next to impossible to break. Now I know how parents of teenage smokers must feel.
Cribbing straps, which put pressure on the larynx when the horse tries to arch his neck to suck in air, may deter the casual cribber, but for the hard-core addict, there’s no easy solution, no Cribbers Anonymous, no rehab, not yet.
Nonetheless, I invest in the strap, along with an assortment of expensive stall toys: a rotating apple-scented thingy that mounts in a corner and is supposed to be a real blast; a scented ball with a handle Eli can use to pick it up with his mouth, God only knows to what end; and a solid treat ball that resembles bird seed and that hangs by a rope from the ceiling, promising “no more bored horses!”
“There,” I say to Eli, giving his treat ball a little test twirl. “Isn’t this going to be fun? It’s like Disneyland in here! I’ll bet you’re having trouble deciding what to play with first! Am I right?”
He looks at me blankly, then sets his teeth on his feed bucket, arches his neck, and sucks air, letting out a resounding belch. And so it goes till I’ve tried every toy I can find, all of which Eli ignores in favor of his endorphin addiction. The cribbing strap slows him down not one whit. If anything, the problem seems to be getting worse, with him at it again the minute I turn my back to leave.
Watching him, I have no doubt he’s cribbing for all the reasons the experts give for why horses crib: the boredom, the isolation, the empty hours between meals. But having also seen Eli standing impatiently by the gate in his paddock on days when he desperately wants to come in – when the sun is brutally hot, or the flies particularly bad – it’s hard for me to believe he’d prefer to live outside 24/7. And though paddocks are a far cry from wide open spaces, a horse can get every bit as bored outside as in.
The social aspect, though, his need and desire to be with others of his species and my inability to be comfortable with that, fills me with guilt and remorse. I can well imagine how much Eli would love to have a playmate, another gelding to romp with in his paddock. As much as I hate to deny him the company of other horses, I’m stymied by his failure to respond to their body language in a way that makes any sense at all, or, failing that, a way that at least keeps him from getting hurt.
I first witness his lack of acuity one morning as we’re making our way down the aisle from the wash stall. Eli suddenly stops dead in front of a stall occupied by a relative newcomer, a bay mare. He lifts his head, his eyes bright, his ears pricked forward in genial greeting. She takes one look at his hopeful, handsome, freshly shampooed chestnut face, lays her ears back and shows him her teeth.
He seems to think this must mean that she really, really likes him. Only after she kicks her stall door and lunges at him with her mouth open does he reluctantly allow me to drag him away, a scene that will be replayed with more horses more times than I care to count. As a result, I am forced to conclude that putting him out with another horse could be dangerous for him.
Hard as that is, there is nothing more painful than watching someone you love fall head over hooves for someone who does not love him back. When Eli falls, he falls hard, and not for superficial qualities like youth or beauty. No, when my gelding loses his heart, he invariably loses it to ancient blind ponies; fat, elderly mares; and swaybacked bags of bones.
And though I’d like to think these are largely affairs of the heart, there’s no mistaking his ardor when Eli goes a-courting, prancing back and forth in his paddock with his reproductive equipment on display for all to see, professing his love and devotion with a series of whinnies so loud and so shrill, one can’t help but be moved as well as deafened.
Ah, me. My baby is truly a fool for love.