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Monday, 16 August 2010 14:25

“Doc – Do you routinely use a twitch on a horse?”

Written by  A.J. Neumann, D.V.M.
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The horse, mule, jack and jenny differ in one respect from all other large domestic animals in that they are individuals and consequently must be handled as such. I believe that today, more than any other time, the handlers of this class of livestock are quite ignorant of restraint methods which can be safely used to control them without causing abuse or accidental injury to them.

To be a good “horseman” and “excel in horsemanship” the individual must possess the ability to accurately assess the nature of the animal he or she is involved with. This ability only comes as a result of spending hours upon hours with these animals and during this time observing them as they go about their work or training. The individual working with these animals will soon learn that you do not make sudden movements, express fits of temper or resort to severe punishment; however it may be administered, for every infraction of the rules. Patience and good judgment must be used, but the animal must also be subject to a gentle yet firm hand.

In working with these animals the individual must never show fear of them or their actions. They will pick up on your fear and react to it in a second. The excellent horseman may be afraid, in a given situation, but he will not express fear itself to his charges. Likewise, the good horseman will gain the animals' respect and ability to respond to commands without the use of fear.

I have learned that the initial approach one makes to a horse or mule is very important in establishing your presence favorably with the animal. Your actions at that moment will either instill trust and confidence, or the opposite.

I have been taught and have learned, that horses and mules can be divided into three groups according to their temperament. They are:

Group 1: I like to refer to them as young, dumb and innocent. They have no bad habits, are as green as grass and bear malice to no one. However, they are afraid of anything they may perceive as life-threatening and will react accordingly.

Group 2: This is the trained animal with no vices or bad habits. This animal has a good solid outlook on life and its reactions to a given situation are predictable.

Group 3: This group, in my judgment, is full of the bad boys. They are those animals who have been spoiled rotten. Some have had their own way, through mismanagement and lack of training they have acquired vices and poor habits, generally from bad experiences and improper training. This group will also contain the worst type of horse or mule and that is the individual, who for one reason or another, just plain intends to severely injure or kill you.

All horses will fall into one of these categories and the experienced horseman will know how to properly handle the members of each individual group. Types 1 and 3 will require special treatment and handling techniques when restraining them for any procedure.

The most common piece of equipment used in restraining the draft horse or mule is the halter. The halter, plus a good stout lead, is used to control the horse’s head. Excellent draft halters are made of leather, braided rope or plastic and nylon. A good halter must also have solid iron or brass hardware. I personally do not like a halter with the snap built in it on the left side. I have seen too many of these snaps break or come loose after some use.

Never try to restrain a horse’s head with a halter alone. Attach a good lead to it as this gives you much more control of the animal and provides the where-with-all to tie the horse or mule.

There are two types of leads in general use. One is the chain lead which is a length of braided nylon or cotton rope with a 12 to 16-inch long section of chain, equipped with a snap, attached to one end of it. Chain leads used with show halters are often made of chain and leather. The other lead commonly used is a length of braided nylon or cotton rope finished off on one end with a sturdy snap such as the so-called “bull snap.” The snap is very important as it should be of such size and strength that it will not break should the tied animal decide to pull back on the halter and tie rope.

The chain lead is used, with the halter, as a training and restraint aid and never, under any circumstances, should it be used to tie the animal in place.

It becomes pretty obvious to any horseman that special training, concerning the halter and its use, will be needed for those horses in Groups 1 and 3. Those in Group 1 will need to be introduced to the halter and trained to lead and tie. Group 3 horses may have developed the knack of sitting back and breaking either their halters or tie ropes and some may have become known as habitual “halter breakers” or “halter pullers.”

One of my pet peeves is to be called to treat a horse and the client immediately informs me that, “I don’t know how you are going to handle him, Doc, because I can’t get a halter on him and you can’t tie him even if you catch him.” I’d love to reply, “Don’t worry, I’ll just spray the medicine on his back and we’ll all go home happy!”

Now that we have the horse trained to the halter we can proceed to the second most common means of restraint; the twitch.

Yes, I do use and have used the twitch routinely when working with the equine family. It is a wonderful tool for restraint of the animal and if used properly will not injure or cause them to suffer permanent harm.

The different kinds of twitches are all placed so as to use the upper lip of the horse or mule. To achieve the proper placement of the twitch, the animal’s head should be tied in such a fashion that there is minimal movement of it. Do not present the twitch directly in front of the horse’s face. Instead, bring the twitch, with your hand through the chain or rope, up from the bottom of the jaw, and grasp the upper lip. Turn the mucosa inward on both sides, of the lip, and twist the chain or rope tight with your other hand. The chain or rope should be just tight enough so it will not come off the lip. If the twitch is too tight, the animal will fight it and the twitch will do more harm than good. A properly twitched horse will often close its eyes and appear to relax and even act sleepy!

The twitch is probably one of the oldest restraint devices which can be used on the horse. Its exact origin is obscured in time but its use has been described in very ancient writings. Today there is some argument as to the twitch's action on the horse but a properly placed twitch is very effective in distracting the animal and providing much needed restraint.

At the present time we have a number of very good drugs which can be, for the most part, injected into the animal to produce various degrees of anesthesia and restraint. Most of these chemical agents are administered by the intravenous route. A good number of horses need to be restrained in some manner so the intravenous procedure can be accomplished. This is most often facilitated by the judicious and proper use of a twitch. Minor surgical procedures as well as vaccinations and some physical examinations can be performed on a properly twitched animal.

There are many different styles or kinds of twitches on the market today. Generally they fall into three categories: the chain twitches, the rope twitches and the clamp twitches. I have enclosed a picture illustrating these three types.

The clamp style of twitch is built to lock itself onto the upper lip of the horse, thus making it unnecessary to have an assistant at the animal’s head. However, when these twitches are used, the horse’s head must be securely tied to a post or in cross ties to prevent it from tossing its head about. I personally do not care for this style of twitch as I prefer having an assistant in charge of the animal’s head at all times.

Chain or rope twitches are the best to use on the horse. They have some disadvantage, in that an assistant is needed to hold the twitch itself. This operator must know how much pressure to apply to the animal’s lip and when it should be applied or released. This group of twitches has some very common and dangerous members which I shall point out.

You will notice in the picture the so-called “scoop shovel handle” rope twitch. It was common practice years ago, to convert the broken scoop handle into a horse twitch by adding some rope to its end. The operator believed by holding the handle, after the twitch was applied, he could better secure the horse’s head. He could hold it alright! If the animal reared the operator could not release the twitch quickly, as his hand was in the handle. He would often get pulled toward the horse and possibly struck with a front foot.

The same applies to the short-handled homemade rope twitch, as well as those short-handled chain twitches, which are so readily available in tack stores today. I call the latter “Japanese horse twitches” as most of them are made in Japan. They are very dangerous to use because a twitched horse will sometimes strike and the operator cannot get away as he is almost in front of the foreleg when holding the twitch. If this scenario should happen, the assistant will not be able to hold the twitch and control the horse’s actions.

I prefer the chain or rope twitch with a handle that is 24 to 36 inches long. With this style of twitch, the assistant can control the horse’s head and be safely to the side of the animal and away from the front legs. The very length of the twitch handle provides enough room to grasp it with both hands. The operator can then control the twitch and horse more easily if conditions should warrant it.

The chain twitch is manufactured so it can easily be disinfected. I have always used one in my practice since it must be disinfected after each use. A chain twitch can be used without abusing the patient's upper lip and, if properly applied, will produce the needed amount of restraint in the horse, mule or pony.

However, my choice of all of the twitches is the long-handled rope twitch which is shown in the picture. Every stable should have one and in days gone-by this type of twitch could be found hanging in many a barn, mixed in with the harness, collars and other horse tack.

A sledge hammer handle or similar stick of wood, 36 inches long, is just right for making this twitch. On one end, bore two – 3/8" holes, one above the other, about an inch apart and the first one an inch from the end of the handle. Place the ends of a piece of 3/8" braided cotton or nylon rope through the holes from opposite sides. Tie a simple knot in each end of the rope to form a loop, which passes around the horse’s upper lip. This loop should be just large enough that you can pass your open hand through it.

You now have made the perfect horse twitch! The rope can be disinfected and if it wears out, easily replaced. When using the twitch, even on a big tall horse, one will be reasonably safe from those wicked front feet if the animal should decide to rear and strike.

Did you know there is another use for this type of horse twitch? Several times I have had to make a call to a farm, with no one at home, and a mean dog was patrolling the premises. With the old horse twitch tucked under my arm I had nothing to fear from any four-footed guardian angel! It’s always better to be safe than sorry!
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