Less is More — Methods of Restraint

by Cindy Reich

Every time I think I may have run out of ideas for an article, I have a day at work that proves me wrong. I needed to sedate a yearling colt for a procedure. This colt had not had very much handling at all and was pretty nervous and reactive. Usually I am pretty good at sneaking a needle into a young horse, but this guy was having none of it. So I had to pull out an array of different restraint techniques to get the job done.

Why Use Restraint?

Restraint is used when you need the horse to stand still and not move, especially when it is going to be a quick procedure. You should always use the least amount of restraint necessary to accomplish your goal. Sedatives can accomplish the same thing but why sedate a horse when a mild restraint could work just as well? I have been on some farms where there is a culture of sedation and I do not believe a needle and drugs are always the answer. In that type of situation, drugs are replacing proper training and conditioning of the horse to situations. Teaching a horse to accept common procedures with the use of restraint is much better than simply using drugs. Restraining a horse can take a variety of forms depending on the size of the horse, the amount of handling it has had, and what it is you are wanting to accomplish.

Ear Twitch (Don’t Use)

The more a horse has been handled in its life, the less severe the restraint usually has to be — but not always. Mishandling when restraining a horse often makes it much, much worse. Let’s take clipping for example. Horses that have been accustomed to being around clippers from a young age seldom, if ever, need restraint while clipping. However, let’s take the example of a horse that is afraid of the clippers and consistently sticks its head straight into the air to avoid them. So the frustrated handler reaches up and grabs an ear at the base and twists it. The horse stands still while the bridle path and muzzle are clipped. However, grabbing the ear as a restraint can cause major problems.

I never allow any handler to ever grab an ear as a restraint unless it is literally a case of life or death. Sadly, I have seen farms where foals are “eared” for restraint and I shudder to think of trying to work around that foal’s head in the future. Earing happens mostly because the ear makes a great handle, and when grabbed and twisted, does cause the horse to remain still. Did your mother ever grab your ear and twist it as a child? It got your attention and you didn’t move!

Grabbing an ear sets the horse up to be ever after extremely head-shy. It works really well one time. That’s it. And for that one episode of restraint, you have ruined that horse for working around its head for the rest of its life. It takes a very long time and a saint’s patience to retrain a horse who has been eared. Part of the disconnect is that usually the person grabbing the ear is not the one who has to try to put a bridle on the horse later in life, or to clip it. If they were, they would never touch an ear.

Giving Shots With No Restraint

Let’s take another example — giving shots. I am very good at giving injections without eliciting a flinch response and the horse doesn’t even know an injection has been given. Prior training and conditioning of the horse where shots are concerned can pay big dividends. From the time they are very young, whenever they have to be given an injection, I make it a pleasant experience. The handler stands so that the horse’s sight is blocked to the rear and they cannot see and anticipate or react to the injection. Rubbing the horse gently around the eye is very relaxing and the handler will do that as I grab a pinch of skin.

Wiggling the skin fold, I gently slide the needle alongside my fingers and give the injection. Most of the time there is no reaction. They are responding and concentrating on the rubbing of the eye and the tweaking of the skin. As a result, I don’t have to use restraint to give shots.

Shoulder Twitch

If earing a horse is the highest (don’t do it!) level of restraint, then the lowest level is the shoulder twitch. The shoulder twitch is when the handler grabs a fold of skin just in front of the shoulder and “rolls” the knuckles inward and down, pulling the skin out and down. Most of the time this works very effectively — especially for young horses. I imagine in their mind, they are being “bitten” and are sort of shocked into standing still. I would not use a shoulder twitch with a young colt or stallion, as it is too much like play biting and might cause the stallion to bite in response. He is not biting out of meanness, but as young colts bite each other in play, he can mistake a shoulder twitch for a play “bite.”

Mechanical Twitch

All horsemen are familiar with a mechanical “twitch.” This is a tool that is used to exert pressure on the upper lip of the horse. With the upper lip held tight and twisted, the horse will generally stand still for a variety of procedures from passing a stomach tube to minor surgery. It has also been suggested that the use of a twitch on the upper lip causes a release of endorphins from the brain that cause the horse to go into sort of a “trance” state. That said, pain also causes a release of endorphins, so perhaps the pain of using a twitch causes the endorphin release. Another suggestion is that the horse goes into a condition known as “tonic immobility.” This happens when a prey animal is put into a situation where they don’t think they can escape and simply freeze in the hopes that the predator that “caught” them will get distracted and they can make a run for it. Whatever the reason, a lip twitch works quite well, but it is really important to know how to put the twitch on and even more importantly, take it off.

Noose Twitch

There are two types of twitch — the “noose” type and the “pinch” type. We’ll discuss the noose type first. The chain type is more severe than the rope type. You should never roughly grab a horse’s nose and place the twitch on it. Place your hand through the twitch and gently squeeze the nose and apply the twitch, twisting the chain or rope only as much as it takes to get the horse to stand still — never more. It has to be tight enough not to slip off during the procedure, but don’t crank it down all the way if the horse is compliant.

When you remove the twitch, always massage the horse’s nose so that the blood circulation is restored and make the ending a pleasant experience for the horse. Have control over the horse’s head by placing a hand over the nasal bone just below the eyes as you remove the twitch. Allowing the horse to jerk its head up in the air and “throw” the twitch off just teaches the horse to fight the twitch in the  future and throw its head when putting it on or taking it off. Our horses are taught to accept the twitch when they’re young and do not fight it when it is applied.

Pinch Twitch

The “pinch” twitch requires that you put your hand through the “open” part of the twitch. Gently grasp the upper lip and place the twitch on it, squeezing down only to the degree necessary to get the horse to stand still. I always make the handler keep their hands on the twitch, squeezing the handles together to exert the pressure necessary to get the horse to freeze. This type of twitch is also known as a “one-man twitch” because you can take a string attached, wrap it around the handles when it has been squeezed and clip it back to the twitch. A “hands-free” twitch if you will. Except unless you squeeze it as hard as it is possible to go and really bind it tightly, it will loosen and come off right in the middle of your procedure — without good results. Therefore, I do not allow it to be used hands free, but require the handler to have hold of it at all times.

Lip Chain

Another way of restraining a horse is to use a “lip chain.” This involves the use of a chain along the gum line of the upper jaw. Pressure applied there will cause a horse to stand still and is a very effective restraint method. If it is done properly, the horse will tolerate it quite well on successive uses. However, it requires the most skill to apply. Simply laying the chain against the gum and pulling down will likely cause the horse to rear up and possibly flip over. You have to apply the pressure gently at first to let the horse know it is there but use the least amount of pressure necessary. I have found this to be the best method of restraint when a horse is really squirrelly. I prefer to use a large link chain that has been wrapped with latex so that it doesn’t bite quite so hard. Also, when removing the lip chain, I always massage the gum line. Make the last thing you do to the horse something pleasant.

Use the Least Force Necessary

At the end of the day, the best restraint is no restraint. Conditioning the horse to accept many procedures such as clipping, vaccinations, and other procedures is always the best way to go. However, that is not always possible. For instance, you can’t condition a horse to stand still to have a wound sutured. Always use the least amount of restraint necessary to do the job and the least amount of force to get the desired response. Always massage the area after the twitch or chain has been used, and massage the area if using a shoulder twitch.

August is the hottest month and just has to be endured. It is time to start weaning the early foals, but it will depend on the heat. I’ll probably wait until the end of the month as it (hopefully) starts to cool off. Not for the foal’s sake — I wean in a method that is very stress free for the foals — but for the mares. They never accept having their foals separated from them. I don’t want to stress these mares, since many of them are pregnant for next year. Leaving the foals on the mare until five or six months of age doesn’t hurt either, unless the foal is dragging the mare’s condition down. However at this stage, the foal is getting next to no nutrition from the mare’s milk — it is more of a comfort thing. They are all out in grass up to their knees, so both the mares and the foals are as fat and sleek as otters!