The Science of Twitching Horses

 

My goal for this article is not to create controversy but to outline the reasons for using twitch (or not) and what types of twitches are appropriate. Twitching horses is not abuse when done correctly with a horse nose twitch. Sometimes, they will keep a horse safer for the short term. But – there are limitations to the effectiveness of the twitch and how long it lasts.

PS – I have some science to drop on this topic, too.

 

Table of contents:

 

Types of twitches

How do horse twitches work?

When to use a twitch

SCIENCE!

Helpful hints

An alternative strategy

Go shopping

 

 

What is a horse twitch?

 

  • A twitch is a mechanical way of subduing your equine buddy. There are nose twitch techniques, ear twitch techniques, and even the skin of the neck twitch technique. Nose twitching is the most common and easy to do.

 

horse muzzle and nostrils up close

So soft and capable of sending your horse into la-la land for a few minutes. 

 

The horse nose twitch.

 

  • The nose twitch is usually a section of rope, about 10 inches long or so, looped and tied to a long pole. The rope should be wide-ish and soft, and a traditional lead rope is usually too thick.

 

  • First, place your hand through the loop, then hold the upper lip. Slide the loop over your hand and onto the lip, then tighten.

 

  • A photo at the end of the article shows a nose twitch.

 

  • Some folks use a more cursory twitch, a loop of baling twine, and a double-ended snap. The twine is twisted around the horse’s upper lip. The twine is thin and may take a bit of skin off, too. I would only use this in extreme emergencies when nothing else is around, and restraint is the safest way to help.

 

  • With this type of twitch, there is NO WAY to safely remove the twitch if attached to the halter and the horse “comes to” and panics. If you must, in an extreme emergency, use this type of twitch, puh-leeze do not attach the snap to the halter or metal ring that is connected to your horse.

 

  • You can also use a twitch that is part nutcracker and part very smooth pincher thing.  (See option in the shopping section, down below.)

 

wooden twitch with rope loop

A standard lip loop and wooden dowel.

 

The horse ear twitch

 

  • This method is a particularly barbaric way of subduing a horse. Essentially, an ear is twisted and pulled. Many horses will become head-shy and sour after this experience, and there’s preliminary science to back up this specific twitching practice’s horrible nature.

 

The skin twitch

 

  • Also known as a shoulder roll, this method often helps a horse that is hesitant about injections in their neck. You can grab a specific spot on your horse’s neck, near the shoulder, and gently roll it.

 

How do twitches work?

 

  • Is it like sedation? The broadstroke answer to this question is that they create endorphins, those feel-good natural drugs their bodies create. Think “runner’s high,” but for equines.

 

  • But it’s a bit more complicated. Once a twitch is applied, the horse’s body needs about three to five minutes to ramp up the endorphins. During this time, you might notice some horses become ticked off or agitated.

 

  • As the endorphins kick in, they might “check out” and show signs of relaxation. Eyes may glaze over, and the head and lower lip may drop. This is similar to sedation, but without drugs, and waking up is much faster.

 

  • The endorphins only last for about 10 minutes. If a horse decides to “check back in” while the twitch is on, you may have a feisty ball of flying legs.

 

I can’t emphasize this enough for nose and skin twitching: Have your vet show you how to do this properly. Don’t watch a video or read step-by-step instructions; get hands-on training instead.

 

When would you twitch a horse?

 

  • Twitches are typically used during veterinary procedures when a horse needs to be chill for a few minutes but can’t have sedation. During a lameness exam, they can’t be sedated, but if they need to have a nerve block during the exam, a twitch may be in order. This nerve block procedure stings a bit more than a traditional injection, and accuracy from the vet is vital. The twitch induces euphoria, making the nerve block safer and less painful.

 

  • Other times to twitch might be during an emergency. If a horse is injured and can’t stand calmly for injection of pain relief and sedation, using a twitch can keep them from hurting themself more. It is extremely dangerous to give medications when there is panic, pain, and thrashing going on. Twitching can give you a window to make it happen.

 

  • Twitching horses provides a small window during which your horse is chilled and relaxed. Yes – relaxed. But only with the non-ear type of restraint! Let’s dive into that part now.

 

Read this guide to equine emergencies and first aid.

 

emergency twitch of baling twine and a double end snap

This is one type of nose or lip twitch. I only recommend these if it’s a dire situation. Ideally, the twine or string would be much thicker and softer.

 

There is some fancy science behind the use of twitches as a restraint.

 

  • A few years ago, 12 horses were studied using ear and lip twitches. This sample size is small, but we already know that researchers working with horses often need help finding large groups of horses to participate in. It’s what we have so far, so let’s go with it.

 

  • We also know that heart rate (HR), heart rate variability (HRV), and cortisol levels indicate stress. Cortisol can be measured from blood or, in this case, from saliva. Increased levels of HR and cortisol indicate stress.

 

  • HRV takes a peek at the variations in time between each heartbeat. When horses are stressed, their bodies are primed for the “fight or flight” response. You may be familiar with this during a spook. The HRV during this time is low. A more relaxed horse will have a high HRV.

 

  • OKback to the study. Some of the horses were twitched on the lip. HR and cortisol levels dropped, and HRV levels rose. They were relaxed!

 

  • BUT… when the lip twitch was used for more than five minutes, HR levels rose, and HRV levels dropped, indicating stress.

 

  • The ear twitch used on the other horses produced the opposite effect. No horses showed relaxation, and their saliva and heart rate measurements back that up. Weeks later, some of those horses struggled with having their ears handled. Moral of this story – there is zippo relaxation with an ear twitch.

 

Read the study here. 

 

Helpful hints about twitching horses.

 

  • Be trained by your vet before you attempt to try this method. 
  • Never twist an ear.
  • Some horses will never accept a twitch. Don’t keep fighting for it.
  • Never stand in front of or behind a horse while using a twitch. Many horses strike and kick before and/or after the endorphins. You have no reason to end up with a new black and blue tattoo – or worse.
  • Use twitches only in veterinary circumstances when your horse needs to relax for a few minutes. They are absolutely NOT a training method to be incorporated into an exercise program.
  • Remove it before the endorphins wear off. Most horses have that five-minute window.
  • Keep it safe folks!

 

 

horse face with twitch on the upper lip

This chill horse is wearing a twitch to facilitate numbing a wound before being sutured. The twitch was removed once the numbing meds were in – super fast!

 

Training as an alternative to twitching horses

 

 

  • Positive reinforcement horse training uses rewards to encourage desired behaviors without restraint. When practiced over time, your equine partner will learn that even scary or uncomfortable situations earn rewards, which could be treats. This method of horse training is easy, builds trust, and instills confidence.

 

  • The perfect example is training a horse to stand quietly for the clippers or an injection.

 

 

go shopping button for horse products

 

Stock up here for your horse supplies and horse nose twitch for your vet kit.  As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases, but it’s ZERO extra cents to you.  You can also visit my Amazon storefront here:  PEG storefront.

J.T. INTERNATIONAL Twitch
$21.13

This twitch is fast and easy to use, and quick to release.

06/11/2024 09:08 pm GMT
Jacks Imports Rope End Twitch
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A more traditional type of twitch, which gives you some wing span to stay away from legs, just in case.

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You Can Train Your Horse to Do Anything BOOK
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This book is a wonderful, step-by-step guide to helping you "clicker train" your horse with positive reinforcement.

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Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement BOOK
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A Guide to Achieving Success with Clicker Training. A great book about horse behavior and how to successfully train your horse with kindness.

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The Power of Positive Horse Training BOOK

Creating Exceptional Behavior by Changing Equine Relationships with the World Around Them

Horse Behaviour Exposed BOOK
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Learn the language of horses

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Training Set with Clicker and Pouch
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Keep your rewards handy while clicker training!

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Thank you!