Thursday, 10 January 2013

How does a twitch work?

If someone advised you to use a twitch to restrain your horse whilst doing something he doesn’t like, such as clipping, would you do it? How would you decide whether to use a twitch or not?

Common Sense

If you knew nothing about using a twitch, but were told that it involved tightening a rope, chain or similar around the horse’s upper lip, common sense would probably tell you that this would hurt, and this might deter you. But our instincts and common sense aren't always right, so maybe best to get another opinion...

Do Some Research

Say you happened to have a copy of ‘the BHS complete manual of horse and stable management’ - you would find them suggesting use of a twitch for clipping difficult horses, unless the horse 'becomes violent'. This book further explains that the twitch works by ‘inducing the animal to produce endorphins that calm him down’.

If you looked to the internet for help, there is much written in favour of the twitch and less against it. For example, Wikipedia says:

‘The twitch is popularly believed to work by distracting the horse, but may act instead by triggering the release of endorphins from the horse's brain, producing a calming effect.The twitch is considered a humane method of restraint and is commonly used by horsemen and veterinarians to keep an animal still and quiet’

Think about what you’ve read…

So far, you may be beginning to doubt your common sense or gut instinct – which is fine, it’s always good to keep an open mind. The general consensus is that it is humane. But lets look at the words used above.

Distracting : how does it ‘distract’ the horse? I would suggest that it doesn’t distract them by being particularly appealing or interesting. Maybe it distracts them in much the same way as somebody taking hold of your nose and twisting it would ‘distract’ you?

Inducing/Triggering release of endorphins : How is this release induced? Going to Wikipedia again, it tells us that

‘in vertebrates endorphins are released during exercise, pain, consumption of spicy food, love and orgasm’

So which is the horse experiencing when he releases endorphins? We can clearly rule everything out expect pain (unless you’re riding hard whilst applying the twitch, or have just fed your horse a curry)
The information from our book and the internet was probably not untrue then, but in neglecting to mention the probable reason for distraction and/or release of endorphins it is very misleading.

Read a bit more?

Surely someone else has spotted this already? If you search further on the internet, you will find some sites which give the opinion that twitching causes pain. For example, (!) says

The horse twitch is attached to the soft, sensitive upper lip. As a result of the intense pain the twitch initially creates, the brain releases a surge of endorphins that act as natural pain killers and puts your horse in a euphoric state... Since around the year 2000, the veterinary and research communities have come to realize that horse twitches should no longer be the preference. Some horses do not object as openly to their use but we now know that they all experience the initial assault.

But would you trust wisegeek over the BHS J

If you’re lucky and have a copy of Paul McGreevy’s excellent book ‘Equine Behavior’, he states that:

‘Occasionally it is suggested that a twitch may work by distracting the animal. This is something of an understatement since, at least in the short term, the distraction is pain.’

And further

Twitching on the lip is an approach that should be adopted only when chemical restraint is not available and is best regarded as a last resort of restraint … there is little doubt that the twitch works because it hurts’

Your Conclusion?

I can only speak for myself – my conclusion would be that it most probably hurts and should be avoided where possible. Even if you are not absolutely convinced that applying a twitch causes pain, I think most people reading this would agree that it is at least likely. So if you don’t want to take the ‘stomp on his toe to make him forget about his headache’ approach to handling your horse, best save the twitch for real emergencies only.

It is more expensive to sedate your horse for clipping, or more time consuming to train him to be OK with the clippers, but if cost or time are a reason for causing your horse pain…

What brought this on?

I’m writing about this now as I’ve had a couple of conversations about twitching recently with students on equine courses who were both uncomfortable about the procedure. I was disappointed (to put it mildly) to hear that twitching is still being advocated and used in colleges for ‘routine’ grooming tasks.
If a horse is, for example, scared of clippers, this would be an ideal opportunity for a college to educate their students well. Look at whether the procedure is necessary, if the procedure itself is causing pain and can this be addressed, and show the students how to deal with this issue in an appropriate and genuinely humane way (for example using systematic desensitisation to overcome fear of clippers). 


  1. My horse ran into a fence and had terrible cuts on her back legs, when trying to apply salve to her cuts, she kicked and panicked. We HAD to use a twitch to help her get better. Guess what? She was absolutely calm and appeared that she was falling asleep. We only kept it on for about 2 minutes, but I swear it calmed her, and didn't hurt her. WE used it the next day as well and she didn't fight it and the same extreme calm came over her. I think this is much better than allowing her to be freaked out by the thought of being touched and also the use of sedation. I think it works.

  2. Without a doubt it works, and I'm certainly not saying never use it - but, as mentioned above, use as a last resort. I've used a twitch in similar situations, where the alternatives were all worse, it is certainly effective, and better for the horses welfare and everyone's safety in the type of situation you describe. She would have had a much harder time if you'd just persisted. However, given the above information and my observations of horses who have been twitched - fear when the twitch is produced, I would generally prefer sedation if possible. My main argument is against using it in everyday tasks such as clipping, as a substitute for training. Hope your horse is OK now.

  3. I am surprised that anyone ever thought this wouldn't hurt the horse. I have used them as a vet assistant and on my own…but only rarely when sedating would be counterproductive or impossible. I've always thought the word "distracted" was a euphemism for "hurts them so they won't move any more" and as a side benefit they get endorphins. Put something around your lip…a lip that doesn't get as much use as the horse's does and twist it tight…let me know how distracted you are.

    1. Amazing isn't it. People still get taught that it doesn't hurt. I know several students at equine colleges who've asked if it hurts and been told no, it's just a distraction - which is why they are then getting in touch with me for a second opinion. Whether the lecturers truly believe this...

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  5. I just observed a vet who does acupuncture. She stated that a twitch activates some acupuncture points (and ensuing endorphins). Suggested we google it. I find nothing ;)