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Home First Posted: Jan 8, 2008
Aug 13, 2010


by Debora Johnson

Have you ever seen a horse person grab a horse's ear tightly and twist it, grab a horse's muzzle and hold it tightly, or grab a fold of skin at the horse's shoulder, hold it tightly, and twist it back? This action is meant to stop unwanted behavior in your horse much the same as the action of a twitch. Horse people have many different opinions on the use of a twitch. In this article, I will try to give the different views, including my own.

E Lagerweij, PC Nelis, VM Wiegant, and JM van Ree write "The twitch procedure in horses attenuates the increase in the heart rate evoked by pain-inducing stimuli and the reaction of the animals to such stimuli. Endorphin systems are probably involved in the effectiveness of the twitch, since its action is blocked by naloxone and its application increases plasma concentrations of immunoreactive beta-endorphin. The mode of action of the twitch cannot be explained by the generally accepted theory of divertive pain and may resemble that of classical acupuncture." (Science 14 September 1984: Vol. 225. no. 4667, pp. 1172 - 1174 DOI: 10.1126/science.6089344)

What Is A Twitch?


The older familiar twitch consists of a loop of string or a chain on the end of a stick. Now there are new twitches that are made of metal--some clamp, some screw like a vice. If using the old time twitch you put the loop around the top lip of the horse and twist the handle around until the loop has grabbed tight on the lip causing it to look like a ball with whiskers on it. The clamping type metal twitches use the same principle but are applied in a different manner. The use of the twitch has the effect of tranquilizing the horse, subduing it allegedly enabling the handler increased control and safety from injury. Mostly this control device has the desired effect, however, I have seen a horse go "bonkers" and the twitch smashed the handler in the mouth and broke her tooth. There are no guarantees!

How Does A Twitch Work
  • Distracts the horse
  • Causes discomfort when first applied
  • Restrains (calms) a horse by causing the release of endorphins. Endorphins are a natural painkillers, made by the body and released by the brain. Cribbing causes the same release of endorphins which are in the pleasure center of the brain. Cocaine and many other drugs work in the pleasure center of the brain, as well.
Why Use A Twitch?

Many horse people feel that a twitch can be used for some procedures that may cause the horse discomfort. When endorphins are released from the pressure of the twitch, the result is that the horse should relax and lower his head. The release of endorphins causes an analgesic effect. Many horse people feel that they would rather use a twitch than have tranquilizing drugs administered.

Why I Do Not Like Twitches

Personally I prefer to use methods other than twitches. If a twitch is used incorrectly it can cause nerve damage to the muzzle, lips, ears, and skin. It can teach a horse to fear the handler who applies the twitch. In the case of a vet, farrier, or yourself this outcome can be catastrophic. As we know the lips and muzzle of a horse are extremely sensitive as are the ears. I do not like the idea of causing any fear or discomfort. These particular parts of a horse's anatomy are particularly vulnerable. Your horse may associate the twitch with pain and punishment. I opt for the use of tranquilizers. It may cost a bit more, but the effects of the drugs wear off and there is little concern for any negative long time effects. Try holding up a front leg of a horse that protests during treatment before applying a twitch or resorting to other handling methods to control the horse. I also prefer to try to instill trust in my horses. Positive training, and a bit of extra time well spent carries over into most of the ground work that you will encounter with your horse.

If You Choose To Use A Twitch

Only use a nose twitch. Never twitch the ears or skin. In case your horse reacts violently by rearing back, kicking, striking out, or bolting do not put him in cross ties. Be ever vigilant to speak to your horse in calming tones--never loudly. Move slowly. Give only positive reinforcement and reassurance. Remember you are twitching in the head area in extremely sensitive parts of the horse's anatomy. Bad handling in this area can cause head shyness along with a myriad of other behavioral problems.