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How To Twitch A Horse

By Jeffrey Rolo

Twitching a horse isn't a particularly difficult process, but it's a process that requires focus and attention. Performed properly, a horse twitch can sedate an anxious horse so that a blacksmith or veterinarian can work with him, but used improperly a horse twitch can cause significant pain, encourage defiance, and make a horse head shy. So needless to say, it's critical that you know how to twitch a horse before even thinking about applying one.

Before continuing, let me quickly state that if you haven't yet read the article Horse Twitching: What Is A Horse Twitch & How Does It Work I would encourage doing so first, because it covers what a twitch is, when one should be applied, and how it affects a horse biologically. Without knowing these critical details, you'll have a much more difficult time knowing how to apply and use a horse twitch properly.

When applying a twitch, it's important to remember that all horses are individuals, and thus each will react differently and respond to varying levels of pressure. All twitches will need to be tightly clamped for them to be effective, but don't continue twisting or clamping your horse's upper lip until it seems ready to burst. Observe him as you apply the pressure, and when it appears that you have achieved the desired results stop tightening the twitch.

Remember that there are two methods in which a horse twitch works: distraction via pain (the first few minutes after application) and the analgesia stage (where an endorphin rush takes place, sedating your horse and alleviating discomfort). Whenever you use a horse twitch, you want to keep it in place beyond the initial pain stage. Why? Because if pain is the last sensation that a horse feels before a twitch's removal, he will be left with a very negative opinion about the procedure and be much more prone to fight the twitch in the future.

One of the common mistakes a horseman makes when a veterinarian gives a horse a shot is to handle it in a "wham, bam, thank you ma'am" fashion. The twitch is slapped on, the shot is given, and the twitch is removed, all under 2-3 minutes. At this point you're not doing your horse any favors, because all he experienced was discomfort on both the lip and the spot the shot was applied. Had you waited until the endorphins kicked in (about 4-5 minutes after the twitch is applied), your horse would receive a natural high of sorts and then feel no more pain until the endorphins ran out. That is the point where you want to perform the work and then remove the twitch.

(When your horse starts dropping his head and appearing sleepy or bored, that's when you know the endorphins have kicked in. Get the work completed within this stage whenever possible, before your horse becomes "alert" again due to the endorphins running out.)

When you need to twitch a horse for a prolonged period of time, such as when you're shoeing a horse, pay attention to the time. The analgesia stage will last for around 10-12 minutes before the endorphins run dry and the pain returns, so you want to make sure your twitch is removed before that time. If you cannot finish the work within that time span, it's better to do as many hooves as you can in that 10-12 minutes, then remove the twitch and give your horse about 10 minutes to recuperate. After about 10 minutes have elapsed, the horse's body will be ready to flood another round of endorphins, so the horse twitch can be re-applied for a second session (and so on).

In a nutshell, keep the following pattern in mind:

bulletFirst 3-5 minutes: discomfort
bulletNext 10-12 minutes: endorphin rush (the sweet spot)
bulletBeyond that: discomfort, unless the twitch is removed for about 10 minutes and then re-applied, thereby "resetting" the pattern.

Never rely on the twitch to control your horse. The twitch is designed to distract the horse via localized discomfort or to sedate the horse via an endorphin rush, depending upon which stage the work is being conducted. A horse twitch is not meant to control a horse's head, and in fact if your horse attempts to fight the twitch the likelihood is that he will win. It's not too difficult for a horse to slip out of a twitch if he fights you, so make sure either you or an assistant controls the actual head via a chain shank or rope halter if necessary.

I cannot stress the preceding point strongly enough, because if your horse "discovers" that he can slip out of a twitch, you're going to have a far more difficult time using it effectively in the future. Not only does that make your job more difficult, it also creates unnecessary pain for your horse, because although he's slipping the twitch, it still hurts like hell and since he's never reaching the endorphin-release stage of the twitching process, in his mind the horse twitch is little more than a torture instrument. There's no room for sloppy work when using a twitch.

When applying and/or using a twitch, make sure that no part of the twitch rubs against the horse's gums or teeth, because that will be very painful. A twitch should capture the meaty portion of a horse's upper lip only… no other body parts should ever be twitched.

Never attempt to lead a horse with a twitch; the twitch is not a lead line! It may sound obvious, but you might be surprised at how many amateur horsemen believe that a horse twitch, once applied, gives them total control. It doesn't. Attempting to lead a horse by twitching his lip will not only be extremely uncomfortable, but will also encourage him to fight the twitch and potentially slip it.

Don't expect your horse to stand in a controlled state unless you also have perfect control over yourself. Far too often horsemen are overly aggressive or hasty when they twitch a horse, and such behavior casts a negative shadow over the whole experience. Handle a twitch in the exact same manner as you would handle your horse when performing groundwork with him: in a cool, calm, precise and controlled manner. Don't be hasty, don't be impatient, and don't show any hesitation; apply it in a deliberate fashion. The more confidence and professionalism you exude, the less chance there is that your horse will fight the twitch.

Keeping a partner on-hand when you twitch a horse for the first few times is always a good idea, because as touched upon earlier, once your horse slips the twitch a couple times, you lose two ways:

  1. Your horse associates the twitch with pain, and defiance with the removal (albeit temporarily) of that pain. This will encourage your horse to fight the twitch anytime you attempt to use it in the future, and once a bad habit is imbedded, it's often very difficult to train back out.

  2. When you keep on twitching the lip before the endorphins kick in, you're causing unnecessary discomfort to your horse, which is something none of us wish to do.

For this reason, until you and your horse are comfortable with the whole process, it's a very good idea for an assistant to control the horse's head while you learn how to twitch the horse effectively. This way the chance of your horse slipping the twitch is reduced, and when the endorphins finally kick in and your horse receives his natural high, he won't associate a negative memory with the twitch.

(That doesn't necessarily mean he'll be keen about being twitched again in the future, mind you, since even when used properly a twitch is not comfortable for the first few minutes. But you'll have far less of a battle if you wait until he hits the analgesia stage before removing it.)

As long as you know how a horse twitch works on a biological basis, and how to twitch a horse effectively, you'll find that although a horse twitch isn't something that either you or your horse will ever look forward to, it'll certainly be the lesser of two evils should you ever have need to use it in the future. Allowing a horse's endorphins to provide natural pain relief certainly beats using drugs, or worse, performing a painful or stressful procedure on an anxious horse with no form of relief whatsoever.

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