Restraint Techniques

The first premise regarding restraint techniques for horses is the art of knowing when and when not to use them. The individual personalities of horses sometimes can make the decision to use restraint (and the particular type) more thought-provoking than "just do it." It often is in the best interest of the horse if an attempt is made to determine if the negative reaction of the animal to whatever is being done is due to fear, stubbornness, or a bit of both. In my experience, if the animal is fearful, a more patient plan of action might be the best--especially when considering the long-term outcome. If a bit of coercion can make an unpleasant task/experience more manageable, that is probably the best way to go.


The application of restraint devices can place the handler in a dangerous position.

The flip side to coercion is that there are many times that some form of restraint is necessary. The main purpose of restraint techniques is to make an intractable horse safe to work around when you are attempting to do something to it that it doesn't like. Restraint techniques are necessary for the safety of both the people working on horses and the horses themselves. There are many times that restraint is necessary to accomplish veterinary medical care safely and effectively (for example, the injection of drugs, the repair of lacerations, or the application of eye medication). Depending on the individual horse, there are numerous other instances in which some form of restraint might be necessary--ear trimming, body clipping, foot trimming, shoeing, loading on a trailer, etc. Again, for many of these tasks, the best approach might be the investment of time and a bit of coercion; but the individual horse and situation will be deterimining factors. For horses where re-training and coercion are appropriate, there are numerous books published by experts in the field of equine behavior and training that can be of benefit.

The choice of restraint technique is a matter of personal preference, experience, the individual horse, and whatever is available. Some horses resent the initial application of certain restraint devices more than other horses. Obviously, if World War III erupts over the application of a twitch, the whole process might be self-defeating and actually could be more dangerous than no restraint at all. Remember, all horses are individuals and, therefore, are different.

I have worked on several horses which went crazy if a traditional wooden handle twitch was even in sight, but a hand-employed skin twitch or a hand grab on the ear was more than adequate restraint. Conversely, there are many horses that go bonkers if their ears are even looked at, but are perfectly amenable to the application of a traditional lip twitch. You might need to experiment with your horses to see what works the best and causes the least upset.

In my opinion, once the decision has been made to use some form of restraint, the restraint should be applied quickly, properly, and purposefully. The restraint technique should be forceful enough so that whatever needs to be done to the horse can be performed and forgotten ASAP. The tentative application of restraint techniques can cause more harm than good. The horse might appear to be well restrained while nothing is being done, then react with great speed when the procedure is attempted. If a restraint device is only partially applied, there is a much greater chance of the device coming off, leaving both the handler and the horse in a potentially dangerous situation. If a restraint device is to be used, it should be used correctly and applied with purpose, or it should not be used at all.

The procedure should be planned well in advance and all your ducks should be in a row before the restraint device is applied to the horse. For example, if you need to twitch a horse to administer a prescribed injection of penicillin, have the penicillin drawn up and ready prior to application of the twitch. I have observed many situations where an animal, standing with a restraint device applied, has become more wound up by the minute while preparations for some procedure were being made. Those procedures should have been made prior to the application of the restraint device.

Once the restraint device has been applied, the procedure should be performed as quickly as possible (without compromising the safety precautions deemed necessary by the nature of the procedure being performed) and the restraint device removed. The restraint device should not be left in place any longer than absolutely necessary.

Almost all of the restraint devices are applied to or around the head region of the horse. The application of restraint devices can place the handler in a dangerous position due to his or her proximity to the horse's front feet. When placing any of the restraint devices on a horse, the handler should take great care to stand off to one side of the horse so that if the horse strikes out or throws its head in a violent manner, the handler can get out of the way more easily. Also, if there is an extra person helping (and extra hands can be of great help in twitch application), make sure that he or she is out of the "line of fire." In addition, be careful once the restraint device is on the horse, especially if the device is one of the self attaching types. Many of these devices can become dangerous weapons should the horse freak out and start throwing its head around. This is another reason why a restraint device should be applied firmly and with purpose as the "half-applied" ones are much more likely to come off if the horse shakes its head. It is frustrating, and dangerous, to get hit in the head with a twitch handle while trying to work on a difficult horse.

Another factor to go along with all the restraint devices is a bit of vocal intimidation. A stern, sure, and unafraid voice can capture a horse's attention and is a good start at adequate restraint. If you are the restrainer, remember that there is a good deal of responsibility placed on you. In most cases, you are restraining a horse because it does not like whatever procedure is being performed and this places the person doing the procedure in harm's way (kicking, biting, squashing, etc.). There also are many situations where if the horse does not stand still or kicks out violently, it will be in danger of getting hurt or creating complications related to certain procedures.

The following is obvious, but needs to be said anyway. The handler of the horse has great responsibility, so this means he or she should be paying attention to both the horse and whatever is being done to the horse--not eating, drinking, or gabbing to people in the room. In addition, the person performing the procedure always should let the handler know when something is going to be done, i.e., sticking a needle into the horse. The handler should always be on the same side of the horse as the person performing the procedure. This positioning ensures that if the horse attempts to kick or do some other dangerous act, the handler can pull the horse's head in a direction that will move the horse away from the person in danger rather than make matters worse.

Also, the horse's head should be held still. There is nothing more aggravating than attempting to look at a horse's foot or leg when it is moving its head all over the place (which shifts its weight around and kills your back).

The final thing to mention here is that you must remember that if you are restraining a horse for somebody, you are taking responsibility for that person's safety. If you are uncomfortable with that or do not think you can do what is necessary, say so. It is better to delay a procedure than risk getting somebody hurt.

In addition to being smart about the restraint technique, be smart about your environment. Be careful not to get yourself (or your horse) boxed into an area where if the horse does explode or react violently to the restraint, no one has a place to get out of the way. Also, don't restrain a horse next to a bunch of barn clutter; otherwise, instead of applying a twitch to clip off some hair, you might be doing it to repair a laceration caused by the horse jumping into the wheelbarrow that was sitting in the aisle.

There are many theories regarding the mechanism by which the restraint devices accomplish their task. They certainly are a distraction and most certainly must produce some degree of pain. In addition, there is evidence that the application of some of these restraint devices increases the blood concentration of certain chemicals that might function to create their effects. There also is the possibility that the pressure applied to some of these areas stimulates some of the acupuncture points, which might have a sedative effect. Regardless of the specific scientific explanation, most of these restraint techniques (when used appropriately) can make horses safer and more manageable to work on.

One final note prior to discussing some of the restraint techniques in more detail is the fact that excessive brutality or duration of application can cause harm. The devices/techniques should be used with common sense and for as short a duration as possible.

The Skin Twitch

The skin twitch is a simple distraction that requires no special devices (except for your hand) and simply entails grabbing a large quantity of the loose skin in the neck area and squeezing as hard as you can (using a bit of a twisting action in the wrist will help with the effectiveness). To my knowledge, this technique has never been scientifically studied and might be nothing more than a simple distraction because it hurts, but there could be some release of internal chemicals that calm the animal, similar to those released with a traditional twitch.

This technique is similar to scruffing a cat and is useful as a mild to moderate method of restraint in a variety of situations. An old horseman for whom I worked during my years as a groom always told me that if your "knuckles weren't turning white" you weren't holding on tight enough. If you want to make this technique more high tech, a number of spring-loaded clamps (such as those used for horse coolers or wood working) will work if applied to the loose skin on the neck and allow for a hands-free operation (the same holds true for restraining cats). As with all the other techniques, be careful not to get in the way of the front feet if the horse decides to strike out at you.

The Traditional Twitch

The traditional twitch consists of a handle (usually wood) that has a piece of chain or rope affixed to one end. The twitch is applied to the horse by standing off to one side and grabbing onto the nose between the thumb and the index finger after the rope or chain of the twitch has been placed over the fingers so that it can be transferred around the bundle of upper lip that has been grasped between the fingers. During the transfer of the chain or rope, the twitch handle can be tucked under your arm so that it does not become a weapon. It is most helpful if there is an extra set of hands around to hold onto the horse's head while the twitch is being applied. After the transfer of the chain or rope, the handle of the twitch is twisted such that the chain or rope tightens on the nose; the chain or rope should be twisted up rather than down as this makes it more difficult for the twitch to come off. At this point, the twitch should be placed on rather tightly, the task completed, and the twitch removed as soon as possible. It sometimes is more effective to wiggle and alter the tightness with which the twitch is applied during the procedure as an extra "attention getter." Be careful with the wiggling because if the twitch comes off during a procedure, the person performing the procedure might be placed in harm's way.

The "Humane" Twitch

The "humane" twitch now comes in a variety of styles all based on the scissor-like action of this smooth metal device. The basic premise and mechanism of action are the same as for the traditional nose twitch, but the simplicity of this device allows for one-person application and usage. The nose is placed in the scissor-like jaws and they are closed on the nose. The device then can be "fixed" in place by a variety of mechanisms, depending on which style you have. The only thing to keep in mind is that you have a metal object attached to your horse's nose and it can be used against you as a weapon. Despite that fact, with a bit of care this device can be an extremely handy restraint tool that is easy to use and will suffice in a number of situations on a number of horses. Again, be careful not to get in the line of fire when applying the twitch.

The Ear Twitch

Grabbing on to a horse's ear is a time-honored method of restraint. Some people feel that this method of restraint is less humane than many of the others, but if done properly, I don't think this is true. I do feel, right up front, that the application of any type of mechanical twitch to the ear is inappropriate and should not be done. The cartilage in the ear is very sensitive and can be permanently damaged if the ear is handled too roughly. On the other hand, the hand twitching of an ear (just grabbing onto the ear and squeezing with a mild turning action) can be an extremely effective, as well as a quick and easy, technique for short-term restraint in a variety of situations. Some horses are extremely submissive to the ear twitch, whereas others can react with sudden and strong resentment. For most of the horses which resent the grabbing of their ear, it is only transient--in other words, if you don't let go during the initial resentment, they generally will become submissive. There are some horses which just don't go for this type or restraint, and another method must be chosen. Again, think of your safety while applying an ear twitch technique and stay out of reach of striking feet or head-butts.

The Chain Shank

The chain shank can be a trusty lifesaver and should be present on very horse farm. When shopping for a good lead shank with a chain on the end, you should pay great attention to the length of the chain. It must be long enough to be passed through the side rings on the halter and connect back to itself. The shank should be passed through the left ring on the nose piece of the halter, over the nose in direct contact with the skin, through the right ring on the nose piece of the halter, then either of two things: 1) passed through the ring under the noseband and attached back to itself, or 2) passed up to the halter ring near the eye on the right side (my preference is the former). These probably are the two main ways of attaching a chain lead shank to a horse. There are many others. The one way I really feel that is wrong is to just pass the shank from the nose ring on the left side to the nose ring on the right side and stop--the one thing this technique accomplishes is to pull the halter into the right eye every time the shank is pulled on! The chain shank, when used in this manner, is an attention getter, but can be ignored by many horses if they are wound up enough.

If just having the chain over the nose is not enough to get their attention, the chain can be slipped down their nose and under their upper lip onto the upper gum surface or in their mouth. This method of restraint can be profound, but must be used carefully--it generally is not necessary to be very rough when using this technique. If I choose this technique, my preference is to place the chain under the upper lip. I am not much of a fan of the chain in the mouth (war-bridle style). If applied with respect, this technique can be used humanely and is useful in a large variety of restraint situations. Again, be careful not to get in the line of fire when placing the chain under the horse's lip.

The Stableizer

A recently marketed product called The Stableizer makes use of the restraint principles offered by the old style "war bridle." The device is made of rope similar to that used for rock climbing with some special additions including a block and tackle type pulley system. The device is placed on the horse's head so that the pressure points at the poll and under the upper lip are affected. Once the device is in position, the rope is tightened using the pulleys and can be fixed in place allowing for one person usage. The pressure created at these two points distracts the horse's attention. The Stableizer utilizes these points because they are acupressure points. Pressure at these sites encourages endorphin release by the horse's brain. Endorphins are the natural sedatives of the body, and have a calming effect on the horse.

Usually within 45-60 seconds after application of the Stableizer, the horse begins to calm. Once calm, the horse easily can be controlled and led with the Stableizer or a shank.

This non-abrasive restraint system was designed to make horses calm and manageable while they are being clipped, loaded, shod, vaccinated, bred, etc. The Stableizer was designed so that one person might operate it effectively. The mechanism of action is reported to be the same as with other twitches. I have found this manner of restraint to be extremely easy to use and effective in a variety of situations on a variety of different horses. I feel that this method of restraint is very humane and is extremely effective at the same time. It is rapidly becoming one of my favorite methods of restraint for difficult horses.

Chemical Restraint

Many times the use of sedative drugs can be of great assistance in getting accomplished those tasks horses don't like. There are a variety of drugs currently available for the sedation of horses that can be prescribed by your veterinarian. This method can be very useful for young horses and can make their first experiences with unpleasant procedures less foreboding.

Sedative drugs can have negative side effects and should only be used under the supervision of a veterinarian. In addition, remember that the American Horse Shows Association does not consider hair clipping or shipping a "therapeutic" use of the sedative drugs. If you are using sedatives for these sorts of procedures, be sure to find out the minimum withdrawal time before competition for the individual drug used. If you have a horse which is extremely difficult about certain situations where sedation might be the easiest on everybody (including the horse), your veterinarian should be able to assist you.

About the Author

Michael Ball, DVM

Michael A. Ball, DVM, completed an internship in medicine and surgery and an internship in anesthesia at the University of Georgia in 1994, a residency in internal medicine, and graduate work in pharmacology at Cornell University in 1997, and was on staff at Cornell before starting Early Winter Equine Medicine & Surgery located in Ithaca, N.Y. He is also an FEI veterinarian and works internationally with the United States Equestrian Team.

Ball authored Understanding The Equine Eye, Understanding Basic Horse Care, and Understanding Equine First Aid, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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