Safe by a Nose
by Katharine Mertens, DVM
The other day I worked on “Saidy,” a big thoroughbred mare with an aversion to needles. Trouble was, my work involved a needle. I had to administer an antibiotic to Saidy not only with an intramuscular injection, but also with a substance that is so thick it takes about five seconds to get through the needle.
But a needle-shy horse won’t stand still for a five-second injection. Saidy doesn’t even stand still for the annual split-second injection necessary for vaccinations. If she has a carrot within reach, at vaccination time, I can dance alongside Saidy, place the injection and skip out of range in the instant before her wrathful teeth ditch the carrot and seek my arm instead.
Five seconds may not sound like much time, but try timing it in the face of gnashing teeth, swinging hooves and 1,000 pounds of pure muscle trying to push you out of the way. Even one second is too long to spend in such danger.
So when I tried to give Saidy her interminable, five-second injection, I horse-whispered as much as possible. I fed her carrots while I pinched her neck in preparation; but all to no avail, if I actually brought the needle into position. Saidy twisted and lunged away from my pinch.
Addressing that problem, I snubbed [wrapped—not tied] Saidy’s lead rope to a stout vertical post to limit her lunging. Nothing doing. Realizing she couldn’t get away as easily, Saidy decided she would try either physically squashing me, or pulling back hard enough to break halter and lead rope. Or her skull, if the halter gave way and she flipped over backwards.
Was any of this worth it for an injection? Of course not.
So I asked her owner, Cindy, “Has Saidy ever had a nose twitch on?”
“Ohhhh no,” said Cindy. “No you don’t. No twitches on my horses. Huh uh, that’s just too cruel. No way.”
I had worked for Cindy for several years, but still wondered if our rapport of trust was strong enough for me to overcome this owner’s aversion to twitches. A twitch is a loop of rope or chain at the end of a short pole. The loop goes over the horse’s upper lip, and is then twisted, via the pole, securely onto the lip, squeezing the lip fast and providing excellent physical restraint when applied correctly.
“And what exactly is so excellent about that, Kath?” Cindy sputtered. “I wouldn’t want you holding me by my lip.”
“The twitch actually has been proven to cause release of endorphins in the horse. Endorphins are natural pain relievers, right? Use of a twitch also reduces the amount of heart-rate increase horses experience in response to a noxious stimulus—like to an injection, for example.
“You’ll see, Cindy,” I declared, assuming victory. “Saidy will actually calm down with the twitch on. She won’t be struggling, and she won’t be the danger to herself or to us that she is right now. I can’t sedate her, right? That itself would take an injection—and I hate to use a chemical that will spend hours going through the horse’s metabolism if I only need five seconds of cooperation!”
Without really waiting for Cindy’s answer, I marched back to my truck and pulled out the twitch. Mine has about a three-foot handle, which helps me put it on faster, but certainly makes it look intimidating to the uninitiated.
Saidy would let me know if she’d had a twitch misplaced in the past. If it gets put on too low or too slow, the twitch can slip off and become just another thing the horse wants to avoid. Used right, horses have no fear of a twitch and will accept its application routinely.
I grasped Saidy’s upper lip. She offered no resistance, so I was able to quickly twist my rope loop into place and stand back while Saidy settled into the twitch. She stood stock-still while I patted her neck.
“Okay, Cindy, I need you to come here and hold the twitch for me,” I said, asking her to do something she had probably never imagined before this moment. Now, I had not only a horse cooperating safely, but an owner as well.
Cindy held the twitch handle tight, and I made my injection. Saidy moved nary a muscle through all five interminable seconds of it.
Injection over, I un-twisted the twitch as quickly as I had placed it, then rubbed out Saidy’s nose and offered her another carrot. She lipped it as gently as a lamb.
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Katharine Mertens, DVM is the owner of Mertens Mammals, LLC, a mobile, equine veterinary practice based in Boring. You can reach the practice at (503) 663-6400.