The need for more education
"I really would like to see more veterinarians know more about basic horse behavior," Williams says. "Although equine veterinarians
surely know their medicine, they often don't receive a good background in basic equine behavior."
At the New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsylvania, a basic equine behavior and handling lab is now part of the third-
and fourth-year veterinary students' first clinical rotation with horses. The two-hour lab reviews basic horse behavior and
handling, with time for hands-on work with experienced horsemen and animal-care staff to coach them and give tips about the
treatments that are the most challenging for new clinicians. It's important to remember, some of the students are completely
new to handling horses, while others grew up in the horse industry and have worked with horses for years. The experienced
students come from various backgrounds in horse-handling style and technique.
"I don't have any data, but it would be my opinion that the safest approach is nonconfrontational," says McDonnell. "We often
find that the students who become the best horse handlers and the least likely to be injured are people who didn't grow up
in the horse industry." McDonnell thinks this is the case because they are often more amenable to embracing positive behavior
modification and employ proper horse-handling techniques. The handlers who think they are really good with physical restraint
techniques are often the ones that seem to be getting hurt and the ones who become the most frustrated with horse behavior.
"I've tried to pay attention to the manner and techniques of those who seem to work especially efficiently with horses and
to those who seem to have the most trouble, whether they are farriers, veterinarians, dentists, trainers or owners," McDonnell
says. "By far, the folks with the most respectful, nonconfrontational style seem to be the ones who avoid injuries, doing
the same types of procedures with similar potential risks.
"I've been at continuing education lectures around the world where the discussion seems to dwell on physical restraint, much
of which only increases the pressure on the horse," says McDonnell. "In my opinion, these discussions reach a level of physical
restraint that only increases, rather than decreases, the likelihood that the horse is going to explode. Anything we put on
the horse for restraint in reality is only going to slightly mute the explosion if it happens. If they really reach the blow
stage on a twitch or on a gum chain, they can easily hurt us and or themselves when they explode out of it."
Proper use of the twitch
One of the common misunderstandings that perpetuates in the horse industry has to do with the use of the twitch. "I would
guess that there are fewer than 5 percent of experienced horse handlers, including equine veterinarians, who know how to most
effectively use a nose twitch," McDonnell says.
A twitch, just like sedation with a pharmacologic agent, takes time to work—and just like chemical sedation, it wears off.
It takes about three to five minutes for the endorphins that are released to reach effective levels, and in the meantime,
the twitch is just one more annoyance for the horse. It can distract the patient slightly, but it is really just adding more
discomfort. If you wait the three to five minutes, you get the endorphin release. That lasts about 10 to 15 minutes. After
that, the available endorphins are depleted, and the levels typically plummet below baseline, which is worse than nothing.
Not only does the horse have the pain of the procedure that is in progress, but it also has less natural analgesia to cope
with it. In the same context, you would not give xylazine, pull out the needle and immediately begin a procedure. You would
wait until the desired effect is observed, and, similarly, if it started to wear off before the procedure was complete, you
would stop the procedure to administer more.
"Horses hate the twitch because the handler waits until they are losing endorphin effects to remove it," McDonnell says. "The
horse's last memory of the twitch experience is the increasing discomfort associated with the handler, the veterinarian and
the procedure. As a horse starts to develop an aversion to the twitch, a common approach is to then wait until the last minute
to apply the twitch, rush the procedure and then quickly take it off. As a result, the twitch has all the negative aspects
of discomfort and none of the positive effects of endorphin release. People tend to conclude that horses hate the twitch itself
when, in fact, it is the improper technique that is the problem."
Quick tips for equine physical restraint
"I put twitches on horses regularly," McDonnell says. "If you abide by the simple rules of applying it respectfully—where
you then wait until it has observable sedating effects, the horse gets that glassy eye and droopy lip—and then taking it off
before the effect wears off so that the patient is left with that high feeling associated with the twitch, horses almost never
build an aversion to it. And to rehabilitate a horse from twitch aversion, that's exactly all you have to do a few times.
Put it on in a calm and respectful manner, wait for it to be effective before adding any discomfort of a procedure and then
take it off while the horse is still in that high state.
"A lot of horsemen who think they know where they're coming from using the twitch, respond, 'Whoa, I never realized it should
be used that way,'" McDonnell says. "Even in veterinary hospital settings, you will occasionally hear handlers advised to
wait until the very last minute to put the twitch on, and they put it on very abruptly, in a hurry, and leave it on until
the horse can no longer stand it."