The Science of Nose and Ear Twitching for Horses
My goal of this article is not to create controversy, but to outline the reasons for using a twitch, or not, and what types of twitches are appropriate. Twitching horses is not abuse when done properly. In some cases, a twitch will keep a horse safer than without a twitch. BUT – there are limitations to the effectiveness of the twitch.
PS – I have some science to drop on this topic, too.
What is a twitch?
- A twitch is a mechanical way of subduing your horse. There are nose twitch techniques, ear twitch techniques, and even the skin of the neck twitch technique.
The 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 if possible. The horse’s upper lip is held by your hand as the loop slides over the lip. The long pole twists the loop to tighten the rope on the lip.
- There’s a photo at the very end of the article showing a nose twitch on a horse.
- There are some folks that use a more cursory twitch, in the form of 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.
- 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.
A standard lip or nose twitch.
The ear twitch.
- The ear twitch is a particularly barbaric way of subduing a horse. Essentially, an ear is twisted and pulled. Many a horse will end up head shy and sour after this experience, and there’s preliminary science to back up the horrible nature of this specific practice of twitching.
The skin twitch
- The skin twitch, or shoulder roll, often helps a horse that is a bit hesitant about injections in the neck. You can literally grab a specific spot on your horse’s neck, near the shoulder, and gently roll it.
For nose and skin twitching, I can’t emphasize this enough: Have your vet show you how to properly do this. Don’t watch a video or read step-by-step instructions. Get hands-on training instead.
How do twitches work?
- The broad strokes answer to this question is that twitches create endorphins, those feel-good natural drugs that their own bodies create. Think “runner’s high”, but for horses.
- 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 that some horses are a bit ticked off or agitated.
- As the endorphins kicking in, a horse might start to “check out” and show signs of relaxation. Eyes may glaze over, and the head and lower lip may drop.
- The endorphins only last for about 10 minutes. If a horse decides to “check back in” while the twitch is on, you may end up with a very feisty horse.
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, is a common reason. If your horse is having a lameness exam, obviously he can’t be sedated. But, in the course of the exam, he needs to have a nerve block, a twitch may be in order. This nerve block procedure stings a bit more than a traditional injection, and accuracy from the vet is key. The twitch induces euphoria and therefore the nerve block is safer and less painful.
- Other times to twitch might be during an emergency. If a horse is injured and simply can’t stand calmly for injection of pain relief and sedation, using a twitch can keep him from hurting himself more as he is being helped. It is extremely dangerous and risky to try and give a horse medications when there is panic, pain, and thrashing going on. Twitching can help give you a window to make it happen.
Read this guide to equine emergencies and first aid.
- Twitching provides a small window during which your horse is chilled and relaxed. Yes – relaxed. But only with the non-ear type of twitches! Let’s dive into that part now.
This is one type of nose or lip twitch. I don’t recommend these unless it’s a dire situation. Ideally, the twine or string would be much thicker and softer, too.
Some fancy science behind the use of twitches.
- A few years ago, 12 horses were studied using an ear twitch and a lip twitch. This sample size is not at all large, but we already know that researchers working with horses often struggle to find large groups of horses to participate. 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.
- OK – back 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 were still struggling with having their ears handled. Moral of this story – there is zippo relaxation with an ear twitch.
For this study’s abstract, you can click here. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1558787816302416
Helpful hints about twitching horses.
- Be trained by your vet before you attempt a twitch. I can’t stress this enough.
- Never use an ear twitch.
- 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. There’s no reason for you to end up with a new black and blue temporary tattoo. Or worse.
- Use twitches only in veterinary circumstances when your horse needs to relax for a few minutes. Twitches are absolutely NOT a training method to be incorporated into an exercise program.
- Remove the twitch before the endorphins wear off. Most horses have that five-minute window.
- Keep it safe folks!
This chill horse is wearing a twitch so a wound can be numbed up before being sutured. Once the numbing meds were in, the twitch was removed. Super fast!
Training instead of twitching horses? Yes.
It wouldn’t be shocking to learn that some horses just need some positive reinforcement training to become safe in certain situations. It’s worth looking into! Clicker training is a valuable method of horse communication that builds trust.
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