Expert: Nose Twitches And Ear Twitches May Have Very Different Impacts...And Welfare Implications - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Expert: Nose Twitches And Ear Twitches May Have Very Different Impacts…And Welfare Implications

Working with a horse multiple times your body weight and fitness requires strength and confidence in your abilities. There are times that you need a little more support than just a lead rope or a chain can offer. That's when the use of twitching might come into play.

Twitching is a method used with horses to help organically subdue them without the use of drugs. Most often you'll see grooms using a twitch on a horse's lip for basic veterinary procedures or clipping. Twitching causes endorphins that kick in as soon as the twitch is activated and subside once the twitch is removed, thus eliminating any grogginess for the horse, as well as eliminating the concerns for any drug showing up in a test.

The most common location for a twitch is the upper lip, but there's also the less common ear twitch. Twitching the ear entails a strong grip with a slight twist in the ear.

“There are many methods of equine restraint that have been used for hundreds of years and are effective when used calmly, with tact and empathy with the horse, especially in a horse which is not already severely stressed,” said Dr. Sue Dyson, scientific advisor to the Saddle Research Trust and Moorcroft Rehabilitation Centre in the United Kingdom. “We know that a nose twitch, performed manually with a hand or with the aid of 'a twitch' results in the release of endorphins in the horse's brain which result in the induction of calmness in a majority of horses. It has been likened to the use of acupuncture. If the effect of endorphins is blocked by an antagonist drug which blocks the action of endorphins the nose twitch is not efficacious. However, a minority of horses become extremely tense and may become explosive, so it is imperative to watch each individual horse's reaction. Moreover, the effectiveness of a nose twitch is usually much less if a horse is already heavily stressed.”

Dr. Dyson explains that in an experimental study, 12 riding school horses were divided into two groups–six treated by the application of a nose twitch and six having a manual ear twitch (Flakoll, B. et al. 2016). The heart rate, heart rate variability and salivary cortisol concentrations were measured as indicators of stress. (These horses allegedly had never had a twitch applied previously.) The horses' reactions to handling of the head were assessed before and for several weeks afterwards.

“It was concluded that the application of an ear twitch may subdue a horse temporarily, but probably that this is through fear or stress,” says Dr. Dyson. “Moreover, an ear twitch induced a degree of head shyness which persisted for several weeks. However, the nose twitch induced stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system and did not in the short term induce stress or alter reactions to handling of the head in most horses.  It was concluded that the use of a nose twitch could be endorsed, but an ear twitch should not be condoned.”

The concern with using the ear twitch is the increased propensity of head shyness in the horse later in his life/career. Head shyness can make a horse more difficult in the barn or when it comes to applying tack, grooming and veterinary procedures, let along actions in the starting gate.

“With any method of handling a horse's head, done badly, without tact and empathy, especially in a horse which is already stressed, there is the potential to induce head shy behavior,” said Dyson. “In (that) small study, it was demonstrated that horses which had been ear twitched showed persistent behavioral changes when the head was handled over the next several weeks.”

So, is all twitching bad? Not exactly, says Dr. Dyson. Just as with anything done with horses, if nose twitching is done poorly or without regard to the safety and comfort of the horse, that, too, can induce behavioral changes. However, for smaller grooms and handlers, it can help increase the safety of handling bigger, more powerful Thoroughbreds.

“We need to rethink how horses learn and how with appropriate training, often with positive reinforcement, horses can be rapidly trained by someone with knowledge, skill and quick reactions, to accept potentially aversive stimuli (for example intravenous injections) and to respond appropriately to a handler's cues (for example, for loading for transport),” said Dyson. “Ideally this needs to be practiced in a calm, non-stressful environment, so that when faced with the same situation in a potentially more stressful situation (for example, loading into starting stalls), the horse continues to respond appropriately to the handler's cues. A correct basic training or time spent re-educating are invaluable for safe, effective handling of horses, minimizing stress.

“It is likely that by minimizing stress, a horse is more likely to fulfill its performance potential than if over-stressed.”

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