Windsucking is an oral stereotypic behavior performed by horses. It is closely related to cribbing, but they are distinct behaviors.

Horses windsuck by arching their necks and using their mouth to suck air into the cranial esophagus. The horse will then blow the air back out of the mouth while making a grunting sound. [2]

Horses may begin windsucking in response to stress, boredom, or gastrointestinal discomfort. While the behavior may not be problematic to begin with, it can develop over time into a nearly irreversible habit with negative consequences for health and well-being.

If your horse exhibits signs of windsucking, it’s important to talk to your veterinarian about potential causes and treatment options.

Windsucking in Horses

Windsucking is characterized by a horse repeatedly arching its neck and contracting its abdominal muscles to suck in air, resulting in a gulping motion. The horse will then grunts as the air is expelled.

Some horses perform the behaviour only when a stressful situation or stimulus arises. Other horses may spend many hours of their day windsucking,

The stereotypy is most commonly expressed in a barn or stall, but can also be expressed when turned out in a pasture. [1]

Horses that windsuck are often anxious or stressed, and this can make them difficult to handle. They may exhibit other stereotypic behaviors, such as cribbing, wood chewing or stall weaving.

Windsucking can also make it difficult for horses to concentrate on tasks, such as training or racing. It can also interfere with normal eating behaviours and result in weight loss.

Working with a veterinarian or equine behaviorist can help you develop a plan to stop your horse from windsucking.

Several products are advertised to help deter horses from windsucking, such as wraps, collars, and muzzles. Behavior modification training may also be necessary to help your horse break the habit.

Whatever method you choose, it’s important to address the problem as soon as possible to prevent this behavior from becoming permanent and to minimize adverse effects on the horse’s health.

Windsucking vs. Cribbing

Windsucking closely resembles crib-biting or cribbing; both behaviours involve sucking in air and the actions are often performed for the same reasons.

The difference is that horses that crib bite will grasp an object between their teeth as they suck in air.

A consequence that cribbers face but windsucking horses do not is tooth wear and dental issues. When horses crib, the incisors are worn down more quickly.

This can make chewing more difficult and ultimately affect the horse’s feed intake and body condition.

An estimated 2.4-4% of horses windsuck and/or crib. [3][4] Cribbing is more common than windsucking and is better understood by researchers. [5]

Much of the research on windsucking and cribbing groups these behaviours together because of their similarities. [3][4]

Windsucking vs. Aerophagia

Windsucking is also similar to aerophagia, with one key difference. Aerophagia is a medical condition in which horses gulp large amounts of air, resulting in stomach distention and discomfort.

When aerophagia is performed, the horse swallows the air that it gulps. Horses do not swallow air when windsucking or cribbing. [6]

Stereotypies

Windsucking is an example of an oral stereotypic behaviour. A stereotypy is a repetitive behaviour that does not vary and serves no clear function. [7]

Stereotypies begin as stress-coping mechanisms. The behaviours may continue in response to stress or simply as a habit the horse has learned.

Some horses perform stereotypies at certain times of day, such as before or after meals, or at random times. [8][9]

Oral stereotypies include:

  • Windsucking
  • Cribbing
  • Wood-chewing
  • Flank-biting

Locomotory stereotypies include:

  • Weaving
  • Box-walking
  • Fence-pacing
  • Pawing
  • Wall-kicking
  • Head-bobbing

Stereotypies usually cause the horse to become unthrifty because they are spending extra energy performing the behaviour. If the horse does not consume more calories to compensate, they can experience weight loss. [9]

Factors that commonly cause horses to develop stereotypies are isolation from other horses, confinement that restricts activity, and a diet that does not support their nutritional and physiological needs. [10]

Why Does my Horse Windsuck?

There is extensive research investigating the causes of cribbing, but fewer studies have looked at factors that contribute to windsucking.

However, because the behaviours are nearly identical, many of the factors that cause cribbing are also likely responsible for windsucking.

Cribbing is a coping mechanism that helps horses alleviate stress. Signs of stress in horses include an increased heart rate and increased nociceptive threshold (perception of discomfort).

After cribbing, the horse exhibits physiological changes that indicate relief from stress, including a lower heart rate and nociceptive threshold. Similar physiological changes are believed to occur in windsucking horses. [11]

Factors that may cause horses to begin windsucking or cribbing include: [3][4][12][13][14][15]

  • Social isolation
  • Boredom, stress, or frustration
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Low forage/high concentrate diet
  • Personality
  • Weaning methods
  • Housing and management
  • Breed, age, and sex

Social Isolation

Horses are herd animals that rely on one another for protection, social interaction and mutual grooming. Isolation from other horses can lead to boredom and frustration.

The stress of social isolation can cause the horse to perform stereotypies such as windsucking, pacing, weaving, or cribbing. [4][15][16]

Genetic Predisposition

If you have a broodmare that windsucks, some of her foals may eventually begin to windsuck as well. Windsucking is partially influenced by genetic traits.

Research shows that up to 36% of horses in families with certain genes will windsuck or crib. [3]

Equine caregivers often believe that horses learn to windsuck from seeing other horses do it. However, there is no evidence of this.

Researchers now believe that the correlation in windsucking behaviour among horses housed together is better explained by genetic relation of the horses or because the horses were managed in the same stress-inducing environment. [3][12]

Diet

Feeding your horse a diet high in concentrates (grains or complete feeds) and low in forage increases the horse’s risk of hindgut acidosis and can contribute to anxiety. This in turn increases their risk of windsucking.

Horses in the wild graze for 60-70% of the day, consuming large quantities of low-calorie forage while travelling many miles per day.

In domestic management settings, it is common for horses to be fed a high-grain diet with limited forage and to receive one to two large meals per day. [16] The meals can be consumed quickly, and the horse may go long periods with an empty stomach between feedings.

Some domestic horses also have limited turnout and spend most of their time in stall confinement. This inhibits the expression of natural foraging behaviours.

When forage is limited, horses spend much less time grazing and chewing, which may leave them bored or stressed. Horses can begin windsucking to alleviate boredom. [16]

Gastric Ulcers

Windsucking is correlated with a higher rate of gastric ulcers in horses. Ulcers are lesions or open sores that develop on the mucosa or the protective lining of the stomach.

Horses that have restricted access to forage and that go long periods between meals are at higher risk of gastric ulcers. This is because, unlike other mammals, horses constantly produce gastric acid even when they are not ingesting food.

Horses that are fed intermittently spend less time chewing and produce less saliva. The horse’s saliva is alkaline and helps to buffer gastric acid to prevent ulcers.

When the horse’s stomach is empty, there are no stomach contents or saliva to buffer gastric acid and the excessive acidity can lead to ulceration of the squamous region of the stomach.

Horses may begin to windsuck to increase saliva production so that the stomach pH rises, allowing ulcers and mucosal damage to heal. [6][17]

Personality

Researchers observe that windsucking horses are generally more nervous and reactive. Personality attributes may increase the horse’s likelihood of windsucking in triggering circumstances, such as when forage access is restricted. [12]

This also implies a genetic component to windsucking since personality is partially influenced by the horse’s genes. [3]

Weaning Methods

Weaning practices can also impact windsucking behaviour in horses. Foals often start to windsuck shortly after weaning. [12]

Foals that are abruptly removed from their mothers are more likely to windsuck than those left with their mothers to be weaned naturally. [18]

Foals housed in a barn or stall as opposed to on pasture prior to weaning are also at a greater risk of developing windsucking. [18] Furthermore, weanlings fed concentrate feeds are four times more likely to begin windsucking or cribbing. [12]

Keeping foals on pasture and feeding hay after they are weaned reduces their risk of windsucking. However, non-hay forage such as haylage or silage is suitable for adult horses, but increases the risk of windsucking in weanlings. [18]

Housing and Management

Housing horses outside rather than in a barn or stall reduces the risk of windsucking. Stereotypies such as windsucking are particularly common in racehorses, who are often confined to stalls for most of the day. [3]

Horses that are housed in pairs or groups are also less likely to develop stereotypies because this allows them to socialize and minimizes boredom. [12]

The discipline that a horse participates in also affects its likelihood of windsucking or cribbing, likely due to the housing and management practices associated with each discipline.

Eventing and dressage horses are more likely to windsuck than endurance horses. Endurance horses are usually exercised for several hours per day and are mainly housed on pasture, while dressage and eventing horses are often given restricted forage and housed in a stall. [13]

Breed, Age, Sex

A horse’s breed, age, and sex characteristics can also influence the expression of stereotypic behaviour. Most research has focused on the prevalence of cribbing in different groups, but it is likely that these factors also influence windsucking.

Research shows that the risk of cribbing increases in horses as they age. Male horses also have a greater risk of cribbing, which may be due to sex differences or differences in how stallions, geldings, and mares are housed. [15]

Breed can also influence cribbing, which may be attributed to genetics or to the way different breeds are typically managed. Thoroughbreds are the most prone to cribbing, followed by warmbloods, quarter horses, Arabians, and standardbreds in order of cribbing prevalence.

One study on breed differences found that out of 100 standardbred horses surveyed, not one was reported to crib. [12][15]

Why is Windsucking Problematic?

Windsucking in horses is associated with several health concerns such as colic, gastric ulcers, respiratory issues and weight loss.

Both windsucking and cribbing can also reduce performance, contribute to poor body condition and cause behavioural problems. [1]

Cribbing is a risk factor for equine motor neuron disease, a neurological condition that usually affects older horses. [19]

Colic

Horses that windsuck have a higher risk of colic, which is a general term used to describe abdominal pain in horses. There are several types of colic, however, windsucking is associated with impaction colic in the colon, causing the colon to distend. [20]

Researchers have not determined whether windsucking causes colic, or whether factors that cause the horse to begin windsucking are also responsible for colic.

Gastric Ulcers

It has long been known that windsucking is associated with a higher risk of gastric ulcers in horses.

Windsucking could contribute to the development of ulcers due to repeated contraction of the abdominal muscles. This puts pressure on the stomach lining and prevents normal blood flow to the area, which could cause ulcers to form.

However, recent research indicates that windsucking may be a consequence of ulcers rather than a cause. This is because windsucking increases saliva production to combat gastric acidosis and damage to the gut lining. [12]

Weight Loss

Horses that windsuck may lose body condition because they spend less time eating and expend more energy performing the behaviour. [5][21]

How Do I Stop My Horse from Windsucking?

Once a horse begins windsucking, it is difficult to stop the habit. A cribbing collar can be used to stop windsucking and, in extreme cases, surgical intervention may be pursued.

However, it is important to remember that horses usually begin windsucking to alleviate stress. Preventing the horse from expressing the behaviour can leave them with no way to ease their stress.

This is problematic from a welfare perspective and may redirect the horse to performing other stereotypies. [2]

A better approach to deter horses from windsucking is to remove the stressor that caused the behaviour by addressing the horse’s housing and diet.

While this may not eliminate windsucking completely, it will ensure that dietary and psychological needs are met while maintaining good welfare. [2]

Cribbing Collar

A cribbing collar or strap is a device placed around the top of the horse’s neck below the jaw to apply pressure to the throat muscles and pharynx. The collar causes discomfort when the horse tries to arch its neck to windsuck.

The collar may also have metal studs and can be tightened to varying degrees to increase the discomfort.

Cribbing collars do not eliminate windsucking completely and pose a welfare issue because of the discomfort they cause. These collars inhibit the horse from performing a behaviour that is intended to help cope with stress. [2]

Some horse owners report that once the cribbing strap is removed, horses windsuck even more than they did prior to wearing the strap. [12]

Aversion Therapy

Aversion therapy is another training method used to reduce windsucking by presenting a negative response every time the behaviour is performed.

This treatment may be implemented by shocking the horse each time they arch their neck to windsuck. [14]

Aversion therapy may temporarily stop the horse from windsucking, but it poses welfare issues, and the behaviour often returns once the negative stimulus is removed. [17]

Aversion training may increase the horse’s stress levels and the horse could develop other potentially worse stereotypies in place of windsucking.

Surgical Intervention

Several surgical operations have been developed to remove parts of the muscles and/or nerves in the horse’s throat so they can no longer windsuck.

These procedures include buccostomy, myectomy, and neurectomy. [1][5][14][17]

Buccostomy:

The surgeon creates permanent buccal fistulae in the horse’s mouth. Most horses return to windsucking, and the operation leaves unappealing scar tissue.

Forssell Procedure (Myectomy):

The Forssell procedure removes parts of three different throat muscles to inhibit windsucking. The success rate varies from 50-100% depending on whether the surgeon removes a large enough portion of the muscle.

Unsuccessful surgeries are sometimes followed up with a second operation to remove more muscle, however occasionally the second operation is also unsuccessful. The Forssell procedure also leaves a major scar on the bottom side of the horse’s neck, usually more visible than the buccostomy scar.

Bilateral Spinal Neurectomy:

This procedure involves removal of nerves to prevent windsucking. The success rate varies and horses commonly return to windsucking. The neurectomy leaves less scarring than the myectomy.

Combined Neurectomy and Myectomy:

Parts of nerves and muscles in the throat are removed. Depending on which muscles and nerves are removed, the success rate of the operation varies. The scarring is generally less visible than the Forssell procedure or bilateral spinal neurectomy.

Laser Assisted Modified Forssell’s Procedure:

This is a modified version of the Forssell procedure that uses a laser to remove parts of the throat muscles and nerves. This procedure is successful 84% of the time, leaves very little scarring, and has had the most success in restoring horses to former performance levels.

Adverse Effects of Surgery:

Surgery is not without its risks and horses may return to windsucking following the operation. Furthermore, most windsucking surgeries leave scars which can be aesthetically unpleasant and problematic for show horses.

Some adverse effects reported following these operations include seroma, hematoma, fluid draining from the wound, infection, pneumonia, diarrhea, and narrowing of the trachea if performed on a horse under 2 years old.

The operations may also leave horses frustrated at being unable to windsuck when faced with a stressful situation. [1][22][23]

Pharmaceuticals

Opioid-inhibitor medications have been used to stop horses from windsucking. However, once the effects of the drugs wear off, the horse will return to windsucking. [17]

Acupuncture

One study investigated acupuncture as a treatment for windsucking. The study found that 67% of horses were either cured of windsucking or performed the behaviour less.

Further research is needed to determine when and how often acupuncture should be used to treat windsucking, and to identify any adverse effects it may have on the horse. [24]

Housing and Management Practices

The horse’s housing and management regime can be modified to minimize or eliminate factors that contribute stress.

Keeping your horse with a herd on pasture allows the horse to socialize, graze on forage, and provides lots of freedom to support activity. This will address common stressors that contribute to windsucking. [4]

If your horse must be kept in a stall at times, consider putting bars or grates between stalls to allow your horse to socialize with neighbouring horses. [4] Hanging mirrors in the environment can also reduce stress. [28]

Providing your horse with enrichment devices can also occupy the horse, reducing boredom and windsucking or cribbing. Examples of enrcihment devides include toys, slow feeder, or feed dispensers that orally stimulate the horse.

Feeding Practices

Feeding practices can also be modified to support expression of species-appropriate behaviours and improved welfare for your horse.

If your horse does requires grain in their ration, consider feeding smaller meals more frequently. Grain is emptied from the stomach more rapidly. Grains is also easier to chew and do not produce as much acid-neutralizing saliva as hay. [29]

Feeding more than 2 kg (4.4 lb) of grain per day doubles the risk of gastric ulcers. [30] Because ulcers are correlated with windsucking, reducing grain intake could also reduce windsucking.

The best way to support your horse’s health is by feeding a forage-based diet. All horses should have constant access to forage to prevent boredom and reduce susceptibility to gastric ulcers. [4][6][25]

In adult horses, non-hay forages such as haylage, silage, or a mixture of several forages can also help to reduce windsucking. Younger horses that have not fully matured should be fed hay rather than haylage or silage. [4][18]

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Windsucking is also associated with low antioxidant status in horses. Supplementing antioxidants such as selenium and zinc can reduce oxidative stress in windsucking horses. [26][27]

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References

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  4. McGreevy, P.D. et al. Management factors associated with stereotypic and redirected behaviour in the thoroughbred horse. Equine Vet J. 1995.
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  23. Delacalle, J. et al. Nd:YAG laser–assisted modified Forssell’s procedure for treatment of cribbing (crib-biting) in horses. Vet Surg. 2002.
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  25. Roberts, K. et al. Causal factors of oral versus locomotor stereotypy in the horse. J Vet Behav. 2017.
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  29. Meyer, H et al. Investigations of saliva production and chewing in horses fed various feeds Proceedings of the Equine Nutrition and Physiology Society. 1985.
  30. Nadeau, JA et al. Evaluation of diet as a cause of gastric ulcers in horses. Am J Vet Res. 2000.