Twitching A Horse: How It Works & Safety Considerations

Twitching A Horse 101

If you have never heard of twitching a horse, it may be startling the first time you see the process. There is a science behind twitching, and like any procedure, the pros and cons must be weighed before deciding to use the practice. 

What does it mean to twitch a horse? Twitching is a medication-free form of sedation or restraint, used to keep a horse and its handlers safe during an unpleasant or frightening procedure. There are a few different methods of twitching, including the nose twitch, the neck twitch, and the ear twitch. Each of these methods requires gently pinching the horse in the area mentioned to make them focus on something else rather than the procedure being done on them.

Before attempting to twitch a horse, it is important to understand both how to perform the process of twitching safely and the science behind the process. For explanations of the three different twitching methods, how they are performed, and tips for safety and comfort, read on!

Methods Of Twitching A Horse

Three areas on a horse’s body are most commonly used for twitching – the nose, the neck, and the ears. 

The Nose Twitch

Twitching A Horse

Twitching the horse’s nose, or rather, the upper lip, is most often done with a device, but can also be performed with the hands alone. The device used is simply called a “nose twitch” or a “lip twitch” and is comprised of a short length of chain or rope and a stick as a handle.

The rope or chain is placed around the horse’s upper lip and the handle is tightened until the nose is securely restrained.

The restraint should be firm but not so tight that it can cause pain or the blocking of circulation. Having a loose twitch is also a concern, as it can slip and will not adequately restrain the horse, causing potential danger to both the animal and the handlers. If no device is available, the person restraining can also hold tightly to the horse’s upper lip and gently twist. 

The Neck Twitch

The neck twitch, or shoulder roll, is another common method of twitching that helps to calm and restrain a horse. There is no device to use in this method – rather, two hands are used to grasp the skin at the shoulder.

The skin should then be “rolled” over on itself and held tightly while gently massaging and pulsing the fingers in and out. Because the tips of your fingers will be pressing into the horse’s skin when using this method, make sure that your nails are clipped so that they won’t dig in.

The Ear Twitch

Like the neck twitch, the ear twitch requires no equipment. Unlike the other two, however, the ear twitch seems to restrain the horse through the use of pain rather than calming (more on the effects of twitching below). Ear twitching involves grasping the ear of the horse tightly and twisting.

The only time I have seen anyone perform ear twitching was at a rescue facility that was using the method to restrain wild donkeys while vaccinating them. Though ear twitching seems easy to perform during operations like this, I’m not sure that it would help tame an animal that is already afraid of humans.

Ear twitching can permanently damage the cartilage in a horse’s ear. It can also have negative psychological effects and has been shown to increase aggression.

The Science Behind Twitching A Horse

Both nose twitching and neck twitching are believed to work by releasing endorphins into the bloodstream, which has a natural calming and pain-relief effect. It is also believed to work in a way that is similar to acupuncture, releasing chemicals into the muscles and brain through the stimulation of the central nervous system.

Though there haven’t been any studies that I can find on neck twitching, there was one performed in 2016 by Brown University on the physiological effects of both nose twitching and ear twitching.

The study performed by Brown was done on a group of twelve geldings and measured both the heart rate and the salivary cortisol. An increased heart rate indicates stress, pain, or fear, while a decreased heart rate indicates the absence, or reduction, of those. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone, and when measured through saliva shows the changes in stress levels in real-time.

What the researchers found was telling:

  • Nose Twitch: researchers found that when done properly, the horses restrained via nose twitch exhibited a decrease in heart rate. They also found no change in cortisol levels before or during the nose twitch. What is worth noting here, is that these seemingly calming effects were reversed after five minutes. After five minutes the horses became highly agitated. 
  • Ear Twitch: researchers found both substantially higher levels of cortisol and significantly higher heart rates when the ear twitch was used. There are two main takeaways to this: the ear twitch is painful to the horse, causing increased stress and fear, and it has no calming effect.

When Is Twitching Used On Horses?

Twitching is used both to restrain and calm a horse during a short unpleasant or anxiety-inducing experience. Twitching a horse may be done during veterinary procedures like nerve-blocking, joint injections, or even to pass a nasogastric tube in the treatment of colic. Notice all of these are very quick procedures, as a horse should not be twitched for more than a few minutes. 

Another example commonly given when discussing the usage of twitching is for horses that are nervous when being clipped. While it is true that twitching can be successfully used for clipping anxiety, because the calming effects wear off after only a few minutes it should be used only on the harder-to-clip areas (for example, the ears). You would not twitch a horse to clip the entire body.

When Should Twitching Not Be Used On Horses?

A twitch cannot be safely applied to every horse. A horse that is highly agitated or not accustomed to being handled cannot be safely twitched. I’ve known a few horses that would absolutely not accept a hand around the upper lip, let alone a rope. This can be due to a variety of reasons, but often a horse severely agitated will also be in pain, which brings me to my next point…

A twitch cannot be used in episodes of critical pain. For example, a horse that is lying on the ground and thrashing with a bought of severe colic cannot be safely twitched. No amount of endorphins or acupuncture will help this horse calm down. 

Twitching should not be used for procedures lasting longer than a few minutes, or for significantly invasive procedures. The effects of the twitching will wear off too soon, or will not be adequate, and the situation will soon become volatile and dangerous.

In these types of situations, sedating with medication may be the only viable option, for both the safety of the human handlers and also the safety of the horse.  

Additional Tips For Twitching Horses Safely And Effectively

If you think you may have to twitch your horse, I recommend you have someone experienced in the procedure show you the ropes. Many veterinarians use the process of twitching, and you can “watch and learn” if you find yourself with an opportunity to do so. Here are some extra tips when it comes to properly twitching.

  • After your horse is securely twitched, wait a minute before performing the task for which you have twitched. This will give the endorphins time to circulate through the body (but don’t wait too long – remember the 5-minute rule).
  • Stay calm. If your horse feels your anxiety, his anxiety will increase as well.
  • If you anticipate having to use a twitch in the future, start acclimating your horse to the feel of it well in advance. He will have no negative associations with it, and it will make it easier to get his cooperation.
  • Give your horse a treat immediately after releasing the twitch. If you use a twitch properly (both in technique and in length of time) and you offer a treat afterward, your horse is less likely to build a negative association with the twitch.
  • Never, ever use twitching as a form of discipline, and likewise, do not use a twitch when you are angry. 

Is Twitching A Horse Cruel?

Lastly, let’s address the controversy surrounding the use of twitching. Is it a cruel method of restraint? If done properly, I do not find either nose twitching or neck twitching to be cruel. Understanding the science behind the calming effects of twitching helps to see the process in a different light.

On the other hand, ear twitching should only be done when there is no other way to restrain an animal, when the benefits of the task that must be done outweigh the painful effects of the ear twitching, and with the understanding of the psychological and physical risks.

While I struggle to come up with an acceptable use of ear twitching, I also understand that things can get hectic and dangerous when working around 1,000-pound animals, and in emergency situations, safety is always the top priority.

Before using a twitch, you need to have a basic understanding of how to tell if your horse is feeling stressed or anxious. To learn more about these signs, visit my article Signs a Horse is Anxious, Nervous, or Stressed.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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