Understanding Horses Part 9: Sans Twitch

Anderson believes twitched horses are dangerous, and twitches aren't needed to tube, clip, trim/shoe, float, deworm, or medicate a horse.
I have not put a twitch on a horse's nose in nearly 20 years. I don't believe in twitches. I believe they are dangerous. Really dangerous. Everyone I know who has been badly injured by a horse on the ground, it has been with a twitched horse.

I can't deal with twitched horses because I can't predict when they are going to blow up and strike me or strike the twitch out of my hand. Twitches don't create a learning environment for the horse. There is no reward/release for the twitched horse when he complies.

If you need more than training to do something to a horse, particularly to his head, a twitch isn't an answer. Now I can understand some repro vets who twitch to palpate a mare; they aren't on the most dangerous end. But, just because you've twitched a horse in the past and he hasn't blown up, doesn't mean he's learned anything. My goal is to clip, trim his feet, pass a nasogastric tube, whatever, a horse with the lead shank on the ground.

I have a standing offer that if you can get a halter on one, I can pass a tube (nasogastric tube) without a twitch by myself. I'm not going to do this for fun as a demonstration, but if you want to bring me your "untubeable horse" and put your money where your mouth is, I'll wager you I can pass the tube on your horse. I'll pass the tube and neither the horse nor I will get injured in the process.

(Editor: When I was at Dr. Anderson's, he showed me a video of him tubing a 15-year-old broodmare that had never had a nasogastric tube passed, out in the open, without anyone around to hold her. Here's his explanation.)

The key to the whole process is I take my finger and rub her nasal septum (the wall separating the nostrils) until she accepts that. When she accepts that, she'll accept the tube. I've got a stiff arm between me and her so she can't hurt me. I've got a lot of control of her head because I've got my right hand on the bridge of her nose, my hip against her shoulder, and my left hand free to desensitize her nostril and pass the tube. If I were doing this in the real world, I would have her backed into a corner of a stall and not out in the wide open. If you can get the first five or six inches of tube in, you're home free.

The thing I've noticed is I hardly ever bleed a horse's nose now. I used to bleed them a lot when I used a twitch because they won't swallow easily. Even on real gentle horses, if they are twitched and you get the tube back to the pharynx, they won't swallow. You get to poking around and cause their noses to bleed. When they aren't twitched, they swallow much more readily.

When we did this video, we decided this went too easy, so we went over and got the neighbor's idiot barrel horse. I had him over doing some behavior modification. I used a lip chain with a leather stop. One of the rubber stops that go on your bridle reins when you are using a running martingale works well on a lip chain. You slide it up to the halter, and he can't spit the lip chain out.

People who are holding horses with a lip chain for me who aren't used to doing that will let the chain go slack and the horse will spit it out, then I have to stop what I'm doing and put it back on again. This stop keeps him from spitting it out.

This is the same principle as the ear. He's never going to get away from me with this lip chain on. I'm not being mean, this just gives me the leverage I need to control him. Remember, never use a steady pull on the lip chain, it's always a quick tug and release. If you want to teach one to rear up and fall over backward, just hang on the lip chain and don't release.

I wanted to videotape the barrel horse, so I didn't acclimate him to my finger first. I just walked up, put the lip chain on, and put the tube up his nose. He resisted, but I never let him get away. When he stopped resisting and became compliant, I told him what a good boy he was. I really rushed him trying to show how bad a horse can be on the video, but he just gave up and accepted it. I wanted to show people it doesn't take any longer to tube a horse without a twitch, and it's a lot safer.

By Andy Anderson, DVM, with Kimberly S. Brown

Editor's note: During The Horse's visit with Anderson, he was called to a fairground to attend a colicky barrel racing horse. He'd never seen this horse before, and while the owners had given the horse some painkillers, the horse was visibly in distress.

Anderson talked to the owners, got his nasogastric tube, stainless steel bucket, and solution to tube the horse, walked up to the horse, took hold of her head, worked with her for a moment until her head dropped a bit while he talked to the folks standing around, then passed the tube and treated her without incident.

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