Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Duct Tape Twitch: Research Tests Effect on Horse Behavior During Trimming and Shoeing

The conversations probably went something like this:

Apprentice: You wouldn’t believe what I saw on Facebook last night!

Farrier: You’re right. I wouldn’t believe anything I saw on Facebook.

Apprentice: No, really, this was cool. And I think we should try it.

Farrier: Try what?

Apprentice: Putting duct tape on a horse’s nose. Instead of having to get the vet out to sedate it. We can try it on that rank chestnut up at the sale barn tonight.

Farrier: Did you ever hear of fake news?

Apprentice: Well, we’ll never know if we don’t try it.

Farrier: No way. We already know that horse is a bad actor. He’s not our problem.

Apprentice: Seriously, watch the video. Here! (hands over his phone)

Farrier: (pauses) That guy doesn't sound Russian. (chuckles) Okay, okay,  maybe it might work. But it might not. Here's the deal: If you know a horse is dangerous, you notify the owner that the vet needs to come out and sedate it while we’re there. Or else they can haul him to the clinic. That's where we shoe these types. We live dangerously as it is.

Apprentice: You always say it's the one you least expect that’s going to hurt you.

Farrier: That’s right. Exactly. Because I know enough to stay away from the ones who’ve already tried. So should you.

• • • • •

You can imagine that conversation going on as farriers drive down the road. Over the past three years, almost a half million people have watched a three-minute YouTube video showing an unidentified farrier calming a skittish horse by putting a strip of duct (gaffer’s) tape on the horse’s nose.

Have you seen the video? Note: the mare had been trimmed already. The farrier is prepared to try to shoe her but her behavior is getting worse.

The video has inspired both earnest and dismissive discussions online in social media and in person in barn aisles, as people have argued the fine points of horse handling, equine behavior, a farrier’s right to opt out of working on a dangerous horse, and an ever-growing skepticism about anything one sees on Facebook.

What if the duct tape falls off? How much duct tape is enough? Should farriers and hoof trimmers train horses? Does sticking a piece of tape on a horse constitute training?

The discussions (and jokes about it) have been going on since the video appeared three years ago. Will farriers charge extra for duct tape? Some people tried it, and said it worked. Others claimed it was nothing new, and that they had been doing it for years. Still others said that perfectly quiet horses erupted when they heard the sound of duct tape being pulled from the roll.

Others decried the method as the antithesis of equine welfare, since the horse’s fear the farrier, the procedure or the environment was not being addressed but rather sublimated.

When is it ethical to try a bandaid approach on a frightened, pain-agitated, or simply untrained horse? Is it the farrier's responsibility to completely trim/shoe the horse, if s/he starts? How many other steps should the owner and farrier take to put the horse at ease?

The bigger question: How many farriers will be injured because an owner wants to save money on sedation, since they think they can just hand the farrier a roll of duct tape?

But the duct tape twitch was elevated to a higher level of discussion recently when a group of researchers in Belgium set up a study to test it out, once and for all, under controlled conditions. Their study was presented as an abstract at the Regional Conference of the International Society of Applied Ethology in Hoogeloon, The Netherlands.

From the study: Researchers in Belgium tested the effectiveness of duct tape to calm horse's behavior during trimming and shoeing. This is one of the study horses, wearing tape. (Photo by Ine Pypaert, courtesy of Hilde Vervaecke)
The research team assembled 30 horses and three (brave) farriers. They began by defining their objective: A piece of adhesive tape stuck on the vertical midline of the horses’ nose is reported to have a calming effect on horses during hoof trimming. They added the caveat that the underlying mechanism of how this technique works--if it does--is not known. 

Each farrier's task was to trim one front and one hind foot while under observation. They would work on the horses with and without tape on the nose, in a randomized order. The observation panel scored the horses as exhibiting relaxed or tensed behavior for five minutes per hoof for a total of 20 minutes of observation per horse. During the time observed, the farrier might be trimming, rasping or shoeing the foot.

One horse was eliminated from the study simply because it was too dangerous for the farriers to attempt to work on it.

The data collection included the horse’s tense or relaxed behavior signs, as well which farrier was working on the horse at the time, the horse’s gender, judgment notations from the owner, and which type of farrier task was being performed when the score was taken.

When the data was analyzed, they showed that 

  • The mares in the group were more relaxed than the stallions and geldings;
  • The horses were most relaxed during rasping, compared to trimming or shoeing;
  • The horses showed significantly more relaxed behaviour with tape on the nose;
  • The horses showed more tension during foot lifting and when they had no tape on the nose.

The researchers were careful to note that the increase in relaxed behavior and decrease of tensed behavior when there was tape on the nose was "significant but small". 

An interesting finding was that the 30 horses reacted differently when handled by different farriers. 

In conclusion, the researchers were pleased with their study. They concluded that the application of tape slightly calms horses down but its use or attempts to use it can, in some cases, create dangerous situations.

--Fran Jurga

Vervaecke H., Pypaert I., Muelle J., Arnout H. (2017). Behavior of horses during hoof trimming: do they behave more calmly with adhesive tape on the nose?. Regional Conference of the International Society of Applied Ethology. Hoogeloon, The Netherlands, 12 October 2017.

This study was featured in the December 2017 edition of HoofSearch, the index of equine foot science and lameness. Thanks to Dr. Hilde Vervaecke of the University of Odisee in Belgium for her assistance with this article.

Top photo: Thanks to Florian Christoph, cc by 2.0 via

HoofSearch index of hoof research
Click here for more information about HoofSearch.

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