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Horse Twitching: What Is A Horse Twitch & How Does It Work?

By Jeffrey Rolo

The horse twitch falls into the love it or hate it camp; some horsemen are too quick to adopt the twitch, while others believe that the very notion of horse twitching is abhorrent. Some horses stand well to the twitch, while others fight it every step of the way. Why such disparate opinions among both horsemen and horses alike?

If I had to guess, I'd say a lack of knowledge is the reason behind the "chaos." Unless one knows when to use a horse twitch, exactly what horse twitching does to a horse's system, and finally how to use a horse twitch, the experience can easily become counterproductive for horse and human alike, so let's cover those two topics here.

What Is A Horse Twitch?

A twitch is a device that is designed to clamp around the meaty portion of a horse's upper lip. There are two primary types of twitches:

The Chain (or Rope) Twitch

This twitch consists of a chain or rope loop attached to a wooden handle. The upper lip is placed inside the loop, and the chain or rope is tightened by twisting the handle.

Some horsemen prefer chain twitches since the chain beads dig into the skin, allowing the twitch to cling better. I disagree with this reasoning because technically a handler should NOT be trying to control a horse's head with a twitch. That is not what a twitch is designed to do.

I have used rope twitches in the past, but not chain.

The Humane Twitch

Now don't let the name fool you although it's a milder twitch than a chain or rope twitch, it still works in the same manner. A humane twitch looks almost like a set of pliers. The meaty portion of the upper lip is placed between the two handles (which are sometimes metal or sometimes coated; I prefer coated) and a cord is then tightly coiled around the handles, thereby clamping the lip.

Note that regardless of which type of horse twitch you use, a horse twitch should never be used on any part of the body except the upper lip. Additionally, do not let the twitch rub against the gums or teeth, as that would be very uncomfortable.

When Should I Twitch A Horse?

Horse twitches should be considered a last resort rather than a standard process. Over the years I've used multiple veterinarians and blacksmiths, and most understood that a twitch should be avoided if possible, but I remember one blacksmith wanted to argue with me about the necessity of twitching my foals while he worked. He insisted he twitches all young horses because it makes his job easier, and I told him it wasn't going to happen. End result? It didn't happen, and the foals stood fine because I had trained them to do just that. But I never used that blacksmith again, because his dependence on the horse twitch reflected his poor mindset and/or inexperience.

Although that situation worked out fine for me since I know my horses and won't let anyone behave inappropriately with them, obviously his adamancy about the process showed that he was used to getting his way, which means how many other horse owners allowed a twitch to be applied when it wasn't necessary?

Veterinarians and blacksmiths will inevitably need to twitch some horses, and you as a horse owner shouldn't be fearful of allowing it to happen when necessary. If done properly, twitching will not harm your horse, and it can make an otherwise heated or uncomfortable process more convenient. But the flip side is that twitching shouldn't be used flippantly there's a time and a place for it. If your horse doesn't need to be immediately sedated, he doesn't need to be twitched.

How Does A Horse Twitch Work?

One myth among twitch advocates is that a twitch will not cause pain to a horse. This is untrue. While it is open to debate just how much pain is caused by twitching, the reality is that for a few minutes, the application of a horse twitch hurts.

A twitch works in two stages. When a twitch is first applied to a horse's upper lip, it creates pain. The pain works as a distraction, allowing a veterinarian to give a horse a shot or a blacksmith to pick up a foot. Since the horse is distracted by the pain in his lip, he won't notice the discomfort being applied elsewhere nearly as much. Although it is necessary to go through this stage when using a twitch, this is NOT the stage you want to perform and complete the work in.

After about four to five minutes of being twitched, the pain gives way to a rush of endorphins, which act as pain killers. This is the analgesia stage of twitching, and it lasts for about 12 minutes (give or take a couple, depending on the individual horse) before the endorphin rush ends and the pain returns. The analgesia stage is the reason why a horse that has been twitched for a prolonged period of time will eventually drop his head and appear sleepy or listless it's the endorphin rush kicking in, and it acts as a natural sedative.

Once the analgesia stage ends, the horse's nose will need some recuperation time before it can release another batch of endorphins. This means for a prolonged session, it is NOT a good idea to keep a horse twitch on for longer than approximately 15 minutes, because the endorphins will run out and it will become an unpleasant ordeal. The proper course of action would be to apply the twitch, work during the analgesia stage, remove the twitch just before that stage ends, and give the horse some time to recuperate. Generally the horse will be ready to release another batch of endorphins in about 10 minutes from the twitch being released.

Now that we know what a twitch is, when to use a twitch, and what the process is meant to do, let's cover exactly how to twitch a horse the correct way.

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