What is a Horse Twitch and How Should I Use it?

Written by Beulah Martin

I researched this question to find the perfect answer and found so many different opinions on the subject of the Horse Twitch. Here is the most complete answers I could find on the subject:

What is a Horse Twitch and How Should I use it? The idea behind a twitch is to produce a certain amount of pressure on the sensitive nerves of the upper lip on a horse when you have a need to restrain his movements. This will distract the horse and take his mind off of a painful or annoying procedure being done somewhere else on his body.  It can make a potentially dangerous or distressing situation much more pleasant for your horse.

When used correctly the twitch is one of the best and least harmful of methods of restraint.  It is inexpensive and can be quickly applied and just as quickly removed when no longer needed.

How To Use a Horse Twitch

The traditional twitch is made from a length of a wooden handle 15 to 30 inches long, with a loop of rope of chain attached to one end. The chain is safer than a rope, although you might not think so, because the chain links will only twist so tightly together. With a rope or twine it is easy to twist too tightly and cause your horse to lose circulation if left on for too long.

To put a twitch on your horse, place your hand through the loop and take hold of the horse’s upper lip, then slide the chain or rope over your hand and around the lip. Next twist the handle until the loop tightens around the lip.

The twitch should be placed about midway on the fleshy part of the nose. If placed too high or twisted too tightly, it may interfere with the horse’s breathing and cause him to panic. He may lash out violently, rearing or striking. If placed too low, where the front part of the lip is thin,  it may cause more pain than is necessary.

Most twitches are best handled if, after you place your hand through the loop, you hook it over your little finger.  This will keep it from sliding down your arm and out of reach. You can than hold the halter with your right hand sliding your left hand down the bridge of the horse’s nose. If you have not put the twitch over your hand first, you will find yourself with a handful of nose and having to change hands to get the twitch in place.

Try to work gradually down the side of his face until you reach his nose, rather than grabbing at it from a distance away. If you grab at his nose, he is apt to duck away or raise his head up high so you can’t reach him. It’s easier to go slow and keep him calm.

Once you get hold of the lip, hang on firmly. It’s so much easier to put the twitch on your horse the first time, nice and calmly, then to have to do it over. Then your horse would be wise to your plan and not so willing to comply.  So, hang on tightly with your left hand and work the twitch off your hand and onto the animal’s nose with your right hand. Twist the nose enough to maintain a grip. Then tighten the twitch enough to restrain the animal as needed. Do not twist it so tightly that your horse reacts to the pain by striking or pulling away. The twitch should twist on the nose, not pull on it; it should not be used as a lever.

Does Twitching a horse hurt them?

If you were to watch a video, or see it done on your horse the first time, you would definitely think that it couldn’t help but hurt the horse. But you have to remember, you are only going to use the twitch when it is necessary to be able to work on him when you know he is going to object to what you will be doing. Then you will only leave it on long enough to get the job done. Done properly, there will be no damage to the horse.

There are horror stories of Horses being hung up in barb wire, or in a trailer accident where if the horse were to continue to thrash around he could be fatally injured, In these cases a twitch would allow you to safely get them unstuck. The other option would be to sedate them, which is not always possible on quick notice. Plus there are other side effects when having to do that.

Twitching is also used for more routine reasons. The veterinary or the farrier, sometimes need to apply a twitch on a horse to keep him from fighting him. Changing  or applying bandages, clipping the ears or bridle path, or other parts of the body; giving injections or doctoring injuries are just a few times a twitch would come in handy.

How does a Twitch Work?

Twitching increases the horse’s ability to handle pain by stimulating receptors in the skin that activate a pain-decreasing morphine-like substance. This causes the heart rate to decrease and sensations of pain to be reduced. These substances are called endorphins, and they make the horse calmer.

After  application of the twitch, he becomes quieter and appears somewhat sedated, with drooping eyelids. He stands as if in a trance, with greater tolerance for pain and discomfort. A twitch relaxes a horse quickly and easily. As soon as you release the twitch, he’s back to normal. There is no waiting for the effects of a sedative or a tranquilizer to wear off.

There are various twitches that can be used. You could try the least invasive one first to avoid anything you think would be less humane. A horse can be twitched by hand. This is useful for short procedures when only a quick restraint is needed.

You can either grab a handful of the end of the nose and twist or you can just dig your fingers in as you pinch from side to side. This procedure is also convenient when you don’t have a twitch handy.

The traditional twitch has a wood handle and a loop of chain or rope at the end. These are very effective and are safe because you can hold them with both hands. Twitches made with stick and rope are more gentle on the horse but are slower to twist into place.

Another design is a plier-like clamp that squeezes the lip somewhat like a Nutcracker. This is sometimes called a “humane Twitch” and can be used by one handler. It clamps onto the horse’s upper lip and has a chain that is snapped to the halter.

There is a mechanical twitch that is screwed onto the lip. This is like a clamp, and can be put on and used by one handler. You have to be careful that the horse could bruise or cut his lips if he fights it too hard. Release the pressure a little and see if he calms down so he does not hurt himself.

A new type of restraint that I have not had any experience with, because I have just heard about it, but it sounds interesting and very humane is called a  Stableizer. The Stableizer (Wheeler Enterprises, Inc.) is a humane restraint that slips over the horse’s head, applying pressure behind the ears and under the top lip next to the gum. One person can put the device on a horse and it stays in place. The Stableizer relaxes and sedates the horse, yet the horse can still move and be led while wearing it, which you cannot do with the regular twitch.
The portion of the device that goes under the lip is covered with plastic tubing, so it never cuts into the gum and is more humane than a lip chain. It would be worth looking into this

Here are some safety tips when using a twitch:

The safest way to twitch a horse is with two people.  One to handle the twitch and keep the horse under control, and one to do the treatment.  Both people should stand on the same side of the horse so they each know what the other is doing and can be prepared for the horse’s reaction. If he lunges, jumps around, or tries to break away, He’ll go in the direction away from both people and no one will be stepped on.

Some horses will not tolerate a twitch. The best candidates for twitching are emotionally stable adult horses that are accustomed to human contact. Working with your horse so that he will willingly stand still for you, will help you handle him if he ever needs to have a twitch used on him. Your horse should be basically trusting and well trained so he will not mind having you handle his upper lip.

Things to remember:

  • Never let go of the twitch – it can swing and injure you, your handler or the horse.
  • Size counts – the longer the twitch handle the more control you exert on your horse. This also would cause more discomfort to the horse.
  • Do not leave the twitch on too long – This could cause considerable damage, and actually would decrease its effectiveness.
  • It takes 3 to 5 minutes after getting the twitch in place for the endorphins to actually go to work. They will start to wear off after 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Never put a twitch device on the horse’s ears – they are very sensitive and can be damaged easily. The nerves around the base of the ear may be injured. It might also make the horse head shy
  • You should not move a horse or lead him around while you have a twitch on him.
  • What you do when you are finished twitching the horse will determine how easily you can do it to your horse again. Loosen the twitch slowly until it is free of pressure. Rub your horses nose  with the flat of your hand to massage it and restore the circulation.

Related Questions:

What if My Horse Will Not Let Me Twitch him?  One of the animal’s front legs can be held up to allow you to work for a short period on another part of his body. This is effective with many animals. You could also use a pair of hobbles can be used to hold both horse’s front legs together. That might be enough to allow you to do what is needed.

How is a Lip Chain used? A lip chain is not a first choice for restraint, but can come in handy when nothing else works. The chain is slid under the animal’s upper lip after hooking it to the right ring of the halter and then running it under the animal’s upper lip and out through the left ring. Many race horses and Stallions work well with this restraint.