Safe Ways to Restrain a Horse
Reading Time: 6 minutes
by Heather Smith Thomas Horse owners encounter situations when a horse must be held still for a procedure that might be unpleasant for the horse. A well-trained horse might stand still because they trust the horseman, whereas a high-strung, untrained, or spoiled horse might vigorously protest or try to get away —and some type of restraint is necessary to hold them still.
Some horses are afraid, suspicious (and won’t stand still), or stubbornly fight the treatment or action because they’ve made a habit of being evasive whenever anything upsets them. Some type of restraint is necessary to make an unpleasant task more manageable or to make it safer for you or the horse. Even if the procedure is not painful, if the horse thinks it might be, he may be evasive or uncooperative. Different horses have different levels of tolerance and may require different types of restraint.
Some horses resent the application of a twitch, for instance, and fight it (if twitching was done wrong in the past), yet can be adequately restrained by grabbing the loose skin in front of the shoulder with a squeezing/twisting motion, or twisting an ear. Other horses are ear shy and that’s the last thing they’ll let you grab. For horses that are difficult to restrain, a device called a Stableizer often works.
Whatever restraint method you choose, it should be applied quickly and properly, so the unpleasant procedure can be done quickly and the restraint removed. An improperly applied twitch or lip chain can do more harm than good. The horse might seem restrained until the procedure is begun (wound treatment, vaccination, eye medication, passage of a nasal tube), and then react explosively. If the restraint device is only partially applied, there’s more chance of it coming off when the horse explodes, with potential injury to the handler and horse. A restraint device should be used correctly, or not at all. An inadequately or improperly applied restraint enables the horse to resist, and he will do so again in future attempts. A painful or too-forceful application of a restraint will also make the horse harder to deal with the next time.
Be careful when applying a twitch or lip chain; some horses strike out with a front foot or sling the head when a restraint is attempted. Stand to one side so that if the horse rears, strikes, or throws its head you can get out of the way. If another person is helping, both of you should be on the same side of the horse. Then, if the horse tries to kick or becomes unruly, you can pull his head in a direction that will move his body away from the person he’s endangering.
Restraint methods can’t take the place of good training, which produces trust and good manners. A good relationship with a horse can nearly eliminate the need for physical or chemical restraints (sedation). Yet there are times we don’t have this ideal situation and must rely upon a restraint.
COMMONLY USED RESTRAINTS
TWITCH: The traditional twitch is a wooden handle 15 to 30 inches long, with a loop of rope or chain attached to one end. To put a twitch on a horse, stand to one side of his head, put your hand through the loop, take hold of the horse’s upper lip, then slide the chain or thong over your hand and around the lip. While putting the loop over the nose, you can tuck the handle under your arm to hold it.
The handle is then twisted until the loop tightens around the lip. Your goal is to achieve maximum control while causing minimal distress; turn the twitch just enough to make him stand quietly, and no more. If the horse starts to move or react to what else is being done to him, the twitch can be tightened a bit more.
To remove it, put your hand on the upper lip, and as you untwist the chain or thong, massage the lip, rubbing the area that was twisted. Continue rubbing until the horse relaxes, leaving the horse with a good attitude about the experience. When properly applied, the twitch immobilizes the horse due to the release of endorphins, decreasing the sensation of pain. The horse appears sedated and his heart rate slows.
Newer versions of the twitch are metal and clamp onto the upper lip and to the halter, so you have both hands free to work on the horse. These are easy to use, but safest if held by someone rather than affixed to the halter. If it comes off the nose, the horse is no longer under control and the twitch dangling from his halter can become a flying missile or deadly weapon if the horse throws his head.
SKIN TWITCH OR SHOULDER TWITCH: This requires no tool. Simply grasp a large quantity of loose skin on the neck, just in front of the shoulder. Squeeze as hard as you can, with some twisting action. This tends to immobilize a horse, due to the release of endorphins that calm him. This type of restraint can be quite effective on young horses or foals. Grasping a handful of skin at the juncture of the neck and shoulder, and rolling your knuckles forward so a fold of skin is pulled over your fingers, can help keep him from moving forward or striking out. You can use both hands for more control.
HAND TWITCH: Grasping the horse’s nose with your hand and twisting or pinching the upper lip works well on some horses (and is easier than trying to put a twitch on an evasive nose). Usually, once you get hold of the nose, the horse stands there as if twitched. This restraint is humane because you cannot put enough pressure on the nose with your hand to hurt him. The disadvantage is that he can pull away. For dealing with a quick and temporary discomfort for the horse, however, such as the prick of a needle or application of medicine, a hand grip on the nose often works.
EAR HOLD: Also called “earing down,” this restraint was often used by old-timers. It can be humane or inhumane, depending on how it is done. Mechanical ear twitches (ear tongs) are inhumane; the cartilage in the ear is sensitive and can be damaged. If done properly by hand, however — just cupping the hand around the base of the ear and gently squeezing with mild twisting action — this can be effective for short-term restraint, and if done correctly won’t make a horse ear shy. Line up your fingers a fraction of an inch back from the edge of the ear, resting them on a ridge of cartilage at the top of the ear. Your thumb under the ear will apply pressure.
You don’t need to twist the ear much or pull on it. Simply squeezing with your thumb, and putting pressure on the ear cartilage (bending the ear’s edge inward toward your palm), has a restraining effect. Keep your elbow bent when grasping the ear, so the horse won’t hurt your shoulder if he suddenly raises his head. Some horses can be effectively restrained by an ear hold, while others react adversely.
CHAIN SHANK: A chain on the end of a lead shank can be passed through side rings on a halter, then hooked back to itself. The shank can be passed through the left ring on the noseband, over the nose, through the right ring, then passed through the ring under the noseband. Or it can be passed up to the halter ring near the eye on the right side of the horse. Either way, it puts pressure on the bridge of the nose when the shank is pulled, giving the handler more control over a headstrong horse.
LIP CHAIN: If a chain over the nose is inadequate, it can be slipped down under the lip onto the upper gum surface (between the gum and upper lip). The pressure of the chain against the gum (acupressure) tends to have a calming effect. If used roughly, however, the lip chain can cut into the gum or lip and send a sensitive horse into orbit.
The chain should pass under the upper lip in a way that you don’t need pressure on the shank to keep it in place. After lifting the lip and putting the chain against the gums, you can then apply whatever pressure is needed to hold him still. Don’t apply pressure if he behaves; just put a steady pull on the chain if needed.
WAR BRIDLE: This consists of a cord that goes over the top of the poll and through the mouth. It works well to restrain most horses when tightened.
SLIP-TWITCH: This cord goes over the poll and under the top lip, against the gum (like a lip chain) with a loop in one end so it can be tightened to put more pressure on the gum and poll. The pressure over the top of the head and under the lip affects pressure points that activate the release of endorphins to create a sedating effect. Used roughly, however, the cord can cut into the gum or lip. A commercial version of this restraint method (Stableizer) is more humane and easier to use and adjust.
HEATHER SMITH THOMAS ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history. She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Find Heather online at heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com.
Originally published in the November/December 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.
One thought on “Safe Ways to Restrain a Horse”