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On Cutting a Horse Standing


“I don’t carry a twitch anymore.”



My brother, Biggy, has good hands. This has been an important gift in his veterinary practice and also in becoming a fine artist. I detected this potential early on.

An Early Horse by Biggy

Spanish Bullfighter

In fact, I asked him, at age five, to draw me a horse to decorate my first cookbook. Actually, I wanted him to draw the horse so I could draw me sitting in a saddle. Unfortunately, I did not fulfill my own artistic potential, but you can see the excellence Biggy achieved in the pastel of a Spanish bullfighter who visited El Paso.

There was another moment when I noticed a special intelligence in his hands. At the time, he was still in vet school at Texas A&M, and I was also home from college and crocheting a throw at the kitchen table.

My project involved weaving together yarn flowers I had separately created. After finishing a number of rows, I suddenly realized that I was doing this incorrectly and threw up my hands in frustration. Biggy volunteered to help, took my place at the table, and meticulously unraveled the mess.

I  realized in the moment that this was an important scene and wished I had had a camera handy. But there would be many other “hand” moments, as when I arrived in his kitchen one visit to discover him sewing his own up from some injury.

Being a large animal doctor is a physically demanding job, and early in his career, Biggy specialized in horses and cattle. Even routine things could be grueling. For example, when he had to “preg test” cows, it meant sticking his glove-covered arm into the rectum almost to his armpit. With dairy cows, he might do 150-250 reads a day; beef cattle 350. He would, of course, also doctor dogs and cats, and these are the majority of his cases now.

It was with horses that he really went into the danger zone, and one such case involved working with a “twitch,” which is the subject of this post.


The twitch is a device used to restrain a horse in preparation for some kind of procedure. Early in his career, which began 47 years ago, Biggy used it to castrate horses standing. The twitch has a wood or metal handle with rope or chain attached, and it is used to twist the upper lip. It was long considered a humane method of releasing endorphins to calm the animal and subdue pain. If you click the link, however, you can see how application might be risky. On the day in question, it certainly was.

Biggy was working on a big white stud horse that was about four years old. The horse was sedated and Biggy applied the twitch, directing the owner to hold it while he administered a local anesthetic. Because the twitch can’t be left on for long, Biggy then directed the owner to release it, saying it would be reapplied when the anesthetic took hold. Some horses react when released, though, and this one did. He pawed the owner, knocking him to the ground, and then went into a  sedated trance. Biggy helped the shaken owner up from the ground, and after it was clear that the anesthetic was working, he reapplied the twitch and directed the owner to hold it.

Biggy then worked as quickly as possible to castrate the horse. When he was done, he moved to the horse’s head to take the twitch from the owner. He turned the handle slowly, releasing it, but he saw the horse’s eyes slowly close, a warning sign, and it exploded again. It reared up and pawed him, knocking him to the ground. As it continued to paw him, Biggy crawled as fast as he could toward the fence to get his head safely under it. Fortunately, he made it, and the horse went into another trance.

Afterward, however, Biggy told the owner never to put a twitch on this particular horse again. Some responded differently to this device, and this one would always be a danger. When it was 23 years old, Biggy put this same horse down, and the moment when it might have killed him was still a vivid memory.

He continued to use the twitch for about 10 years, “until he had enough stories,” he said humorously. Now he sedates horses first, them administers ketamine, which causes them to lie down. It’s easier, but one always has to be careful with hooves. One once drove the three-inch needle of a syringe all the way through his hand.


Working Out for Polo

There is an old cowboy saying about riding a horse hard and putting it away wet, and Biggy has done the same with his body. If he created an inventory of all the injuries experienced as a vet, horseman, and sportsman, it would be lengthy, and of course some are visible.

Years ago, when he was in San Antonio for a veterinary conference, he was limping a little from no telling what, and his arm was in a sling. This was due to recent surgery on an ulnar nerve damaged when a polo horse fell on him during a game.

With his left hand, he opened the door into the meeting room for a pretty young veterinarian. She passed on by, then after a few feet turned and said, “You’re a large animal doctor, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am,” Biggy responded. She smiled and walked on.



6 Responses to “On Cutting a Horse Standing”

  1. Patti Hendrick Baumann

    I enjoyed your article very much. I’m happy my brother, Mike, sent it to me. I know he enjoys working with you. My husband also has many interesting stories about being a vet!
    Thanks for sharing these memories.
    Fondly, Patti

  2. Michael Hendrick

    Ellen, My sister, Patti, met her future husband when they were students at the University of Illinois many years ago. Jack grew up raised by farmers and graduated from Illinois as a young vet. They married and Jack did a post-doc at UCal-Davis, moving on to join a practice in Coos Bay, and later settling up his own in Klamath Falls where they live today. Patti had a successful career as an elementary school teacher, and while Jack did not paint, he was an “artist” at tying dry flies and catching salmon and all things outdoors. I visited them in 1973 and Jack had several head of cattle of his own and also worked with large animals before moving to cats and dogs much to my sister’s relief .
    My sister’s relief his practice migrated to mainly cats and dogs. He was/is a good man and I suspect would have much in common with you brother Biggy. Thanks for such good blogging.—Michael

  3. Jessica Carpenter

    Another fascinating story. I’m learning more about Biggy with each tale. Keep ’em coming.

  4. Maggie

    Ellen, beautiful stories — what an artist he was/is. Loved reading this – Tlhank you so much!

  5. Kathy Reljac


    Well, you did not disappoint me! These are great and hope to read more in the future.