Is it an answer to a prayer or an opportunity lost?
Does the duct tape twitch work? And what are the risks?
By Equine Behaviorist and staff member Caroline Schillig.
Have you seen the YouTube video where a farrier is having a very difficult time trying to lift the horse’s feet, so puts Duct Tape on the horses nose, and bingo, the horse stands still and the farrier can do his job? If you haven’t seen it yet, we’ve put the video at the end of this article.
It looks like a simple and effective way to calm the horse, and on the surface this could be considered a friendly, kind way, of getting the job done.
Does it work?
Some researchers in Belgium checked out the effectiveness of the duct tape twitch. Their conclusion from the 30 horses that they tested and observed, was that yes, there was more relaxation and less tension when there was tape on the nose. The result was “significant but small”. The horses reacted with different levels of relaxation and tension to the three farriers used too.
The first warning from Belgium researchers
The first warning in using the duct tape twitch came from those same Belgian researchers who said that attempts to use it can, in some cases, create dangerous situations.
When you use anything to shut down your horse’s communication – and their behavior is one of the ways in which they communicate – when you use anything to shut down your horse’s communication, you risk the horse coming to the end of their tether, where some horses will explode.
Even if it does work, is it worth it?
Well here’s the second warning – because that depends on what your goal is. If your goal at all requires a beautiful relationship with your horse, with your horse trying their heart out for you and/or using all their ability to look after you as you look after them, then I would suggest that shutting up your horse’s communication in any way, is the exact opposite of what will help you to reach that goal.
A lost opportunity
Our relationship with our horse doesn’t start when we put our foot in the stirrup. It’s built from ALL our interactions with our horse, from the moment we look across the paddock to see them and it includes the people we use to look after them. A horse who’s stressed in any of the routine of their lives doesn’t suddenly release that stress when you go to ride. It’s there, lurking in the background, adding tension to everything that you do – on the ground and in the saddle.
Putting a duct tape twitch on your horse is NOT dealing with the underlying cause, it is NOT getting to the root of the difficulty this horse is having with lifting his feet for the farrier.
And it’s a lost opportunity to understand our horse’s communication and thus have a better relationship together and it’s a lost opportunity to establish trust. We’re also ignoring some level of of distress and either causing the physical tension that comes from being under duress, or missing the opportunity to release OLD physical tensions.
What can you do instead?
Instead we would choose to pay attention and look out for our horse’s communication signals. It’s just sign language after all.
Imagine a world where you could understand your horse’s sign language. Well you already do, everyday, without thinking about it. You can tell if your horse is off colour, or playful, resting or alert to something.
The way you respond to their behavior / communication in all kinds of situations, either builds their trust in you or destroys it. (Don’t panic though, they are very forgiving once we get it. 🙂
Being able to notice the ways that your horse communicates with you means your horse doesn’t have to shout with what you think of as “bad” behavior. Noticing the ways that your horse is communicating with you and taking action to support them, prevents their adrenal system being triggered unnecessarily in your every day relationship.
There are five easy signs for you to look out for known as the Five F’s. It’s the response or behaviour in a healthy horse in a threat situation.
1. Fiddle About – this is considered an appeasing behaviour, when a horse is unsure or not confident in a situation. It is the most easy form of communication to ignore as something else, such as being cheeky, naughty, or playful. Fiddling about can be something like, playing with the rope, not keeping their feet still, nudging you with their nose, swishing their tail (if it’s not for flies), anything that may feel fidgety to you. It can be considered a low level stress in some circumstances, but is has been known that some horses display this behaviour when in high levels of stress – and that’s when they are likely to explode if ignored.
2. Flight – the horse has got to the point where they want or need to get away from the situation. It is their single most important survival strategy. Domestic horses often go into flight when being restricted and their adrenal system has been activated by the stress of the situation. You can see when a horse is spooked by something, how quickly the adrenal system works to keep them alive. When a horse is unable to quickly move away, the hormones of the adrenal system are not used up, the system becomes overloaded and the stress eventually becomes chronic, with the physical repercussions of that.
3. Fight – apart from times during the mating season, when stallions fight each other for the rights to mate, ‘fight’ behaviour happens when they can’t move away from the situation, in order to survive. It’s like being trapped in a corner with no means of escape. Fight shows up in two ways, a front end attack, biting, striking out, rearing, charging, and a rear end attack, kicking with one or both legs. Unfortunately too many people in the horse world see it as normal for domesticated horses to be in a state of ‘fight’, when this is in fact, a stress response.
4. Freeze – is a physiological stress response. This happens when flight or fight don’t work for the horse. It is connected to the Peripheral Nervous System, which control the skin, joints and muscles under voluntary control. It is a type of response that some horses learn is their best option, with some people thinking that that the horse is calm and relaxed. If you keep adding pressure to a freeze response, you can end up with an explosion. The people involved invariably say “it came out of no where.”
5. Faint – this happens when the horse is severely overwhelmed with a stressful situation and almost all systems collapse. Only the respiratory and vascular systems function and organic damage occurs. It is a life threatening situation. I’ve seen demonstrations where the clinician used ropes to pull “a fully trusting horse laying down” which has actually been a horse in a terrified fainting response.
Combining an understanding of these simple forms of communication, with your own unique way of connecting and feeling for your horse that you’ll learn about in our free lesson series The 9 Keys to Happiness with Your Horse, gives you a multi-dimensional, multi-layered way of connecting with your horse, and your horse connecting with you. It gives you more options to create more trust, more harmony – a more fun and easy life for you and your horse. This way of working gives you the chance to ‘catch’ a potential problem from developing or increasing AND enables you to release stress and tension from old problems too.
Take a look at the various YouTube videos about the duct tape twitch and ‘feel’ into what you are seeing with the various horse’s response to the duct tape. The video at the bottom of the article here, is the one that started all the discussion.
Written by Caroline Schillig from Portugal.
Jenny: Thanks for a lovely considered article Caroline. I researched for quite a while, looking to see if this technique ever worked the SECOND time, after the tape had been pulled off the nose the first time it was used and I could only find a reference to a horse going beserk at the sound of the tape.
The photo I used is my Oliver who kindly allowed me to use him as a demo. I rubbed the tape on my jeans repeatedly to get as much sticky stuff off it as I could, then lightly draped it on his nose for the photo and still it pulled at his sensitive nose hairs as I pulled it off.
I can only imagine how that would add insult to the injury of having any worries or stresses or even pain, ignored.
We’re about happy horses and happy people here. So if you have a problem big enough to be considering the duct tape twitch, grab the free lessons The 9 Keys to Happiness with Your Horse and see if our gentle and super connected approach appeals to you. And if it does, take the opportunity to reply when I ask you to tell me your story, to tell me all about what’s happening and I’ll personally steer you to the right program for you and your horse.