I’ll be the first to admit that I’m actually happy training on horses in modern times as opposed to pretty much any other time. For example, sedatives, drugs that make horses sleepy, are wonderful because they make horses so much easier to work with.
Still, sometimes modern sedatives just aren’t enough, or sometimes you just don’t want to put a horse you’re working on to sleep (maybe it’s at a horse show, for example). At this time, older methods of restraint may work very well. One of the most curious of these methods is nose twitching (or simply twitching).
ALONGSIDE KNOW-HOW: I was curious why it was called a tic, so I started looking around. Not as easy to find the origin of the word as one might think. Google was useless. My copy of the Oxford English Dictionary (yes, my innate curiosity can sometimes make me a little nerdy) has helped some, showing the first reference of the word in horses to come in 1623. But that was my 1933 copy of the ‘Oxford Universal Dictionary which had this obscure definition: “4. To pinch or pull as with pliers or the like; pinch; hurt or suffer as in doing so. So there you have it (although the pain this causes a horse is an interesting discussion, as you’ll see below).
BESIDES: If you haven’t seen a shake applied, here’s a link to a quick video clip on the procedure:
REMARK: The video clip above shows only one type of contraction. I’ve seen jerks made with metal chain, bike chain, bale string, and all kinds of ropes. I’ve seen handles made from baseball bats, old axes, hickory sticks, and broomsticks. There are “humane” metal jerks, which can be used by one person, some of which attach to the halter and some of which attach. And they all basically do the same thing: they pinch the horse’s muzzle (although I’ve seen them resting on a horse’s ear as well, which I wouldn’t recommend unless you just want your horse to be impetuous).
Now you’re watching this video and you’re thinking, “OK, what’s going on here? You just tighten a loop of rope around a horse’s nose, and it will stay there?
And, most of the time, the answer is, “Yeah, it’s just going to stay there.” And there are several theories why.
Probably the most common explanation is that it causes a bit of a dull ache. The idea is that this bit of pain will cause the horse to focus on the pain while an unpleasant task is being performed. This is exactly what William Youatt, and English veterinarian wrote in his book, Horse, in 1831 Youatt said: “The horse suffers much from the pressure – great enough to make it relatively inattentive to what is produced by the operation; at the same time, he is afraid to struggle, because each movement increases the agony caused by the tic, or the assistant has the power to increase it by giving an extra turn to the stick. If you like old vet books like me – and this one is a classic – you can even view the book online if you CLICK HERE. (The passage is on page 321.)
There is in fact a well-known phenomenon called diffuse noxious stimulus, whereby the perception of pain in one area can be diminished by pain in another area. So, for example, your headache might not be so bad if someone kicks you hard in the shin. I’m not really convinced by this explanation, however. I’ve been around a lot of horses that have suffered, and they usually don’t stay there. Take a horse with colic (please). When a horse suffers from colic, he shows it. It rolls, or paws, or rises and falls. When a horse suffers from a lameness, it limps. Pain doesn’t usually cause a horse to stand in one place, oblivious to its surroundings, it just makes it want to walk away from the pain. I think there may be a more convincing explanation.
In the 1980s, it was claimed that tic makes it weird because it is applied to an acupuncture point and because of some sort of acupuncture-like effect. You can see a link to an abstract of the article, which was published in a fairly prestigious journal, if you CLICK HERE.
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As you can guess, I am not at all convinced by this explanation, and for various reasons, including the fact that there has never been a demonstration of an acupuncture point, in any species.
(CLICK HERE if you want to know why I wouldn’t bother with acupuncture.)
Some people claim that the contraction works by triggering the release of endorphins from the horse’s brain. Endorphins are kind of like the body’s morphine, and they’ve been credited with all sorts of effects, including soothing (which is what narcotics usually do to people, and that’s one of the reasons they’re popular in addiction circles). I’m not at all sold on that explanation either, because there are all sorts of things that raise endorphin levels in horses, like putting them in a horse trailer and driving them around. Horses that are hauled in a trailer have high endorphin levels, but they certainly don’t just sit there like they’re in a daze.
None of the three reasons above make much sense to me. Here’s what I think.
I think a jerk works because of a phenomenon known as tonic stillness. Tonic immobility is a basic defense strategy in many species (including many mammals, and including humans). Tonic immobility is an adaptive response demonstrated when an individual—usually prey—does not believe they can possibly escape or win a fight. Predators tend to react to the movement of their prey, but if the prey does not move (instead of thrashing or fighting), this can increase the likelihood that it will eventually escape. If the prey does not struggle, the predator’s camera is distracted and even temporarily releases the prey, sometimes giving it enough time to get away.
Tonic immobility is characterized by pronounced physical immobility, tremors, muscle rigidity, feelings of coldness and numbness, or insensitivity to intense or painful stimulation. It is caused by things such as fear and physical restriction, but the most important aspect may be the perceived inability to escape. This is what I think happens when a horse twitches.
If you haven’t used a twitch on a horse, don’t rush out and try it, or think of it as some sort of fun parlor trick. You want to learn more about jerks with an experienced person helping you. Putting a tic on a horse is something that can have adverse consequences. For example, I’ve seen poorly applied jolts fire off mid-proc (explosive effect), and wooden-handled jolts swirling through the air after being dropped by an inexperienced handler. Believe me, things hurt when they hit you. It’s a useful tool, but don’t use it unless you have some experience.
Anyway, that’s what I think of the jerks. And you?
Dr. David Ramey is a strong advocate for the application of science to medicine and, as such, equine welfare. Thus, he has frequently criticized practices that lack good science, such as the various therapies collectively known as “alternative” medicine, unnecessary nutritional supplementation, or conventional therapies that lack scientific backing.
This original article originally appeared on Dr. Ramey’s website, doctorramey.com and is reproduced here with his permission.