Stupid Question ™
March 2, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: In livestock shows, why are the animals’ private parts touched with a long stick?
A: It’s called a “show stick,” and it’s not touching the animal’s private parts. It’s scratching the animal’s belly, keeping it calm.
That’s just one of several uses for the show stick, the overall purpose of which is to control an animal much bigger than its owner.
Show sticks are generally only used on beef cattle. (Hogs are sometimes also driven with a cane, small whip, or in the UK, with a flat paddle, all known as “show sticks.”) According to Virgil Strickler, agriculture director of the Ohio Expo Center, the show stick can be anything from a board to a cane to a professional stick.
Sticks made of fiberglass or aluminum alloy, and with a hooked tip for belly-scratching, can be bought at feed and farm supply stores. Most look similar to pool cues. The ones I examined—Sullivan’s Supersticks—range from 48 to 68 inches long, weigh 2 to 3 pounds, cost $14.50 to $16.50, and come in silver, black, blue or maroon colors.
Cattle have to be trained to respond to a stick. The stick does nothing a hand or boot toe can’t do, but a stick has a cleaner look and provides safe distance in case the animal kicks. It’s always used in conjunction with a halter.
A trained steer or heifer can be moved and led by taps of the stick on its head, sides and rear.
The stick is also used for positioning the animal’s feet—an important part of posing the animal for the show. To move a foot back, the stick is pressed into the cleft in the hoof. To move a foot forward, the stick pressed under the dewclaw—a vestigial toe—on the back of the leg. To move the legs apart, the stick is pressed against the inside of the leg above the hoof.
The animal will straighten its back if its navel or flank is pressed with the hooked end of the stick, and will lower its rump under stick pressure.
Then there’s the belly-rubbing, which keeps the animal calm as it stands still for the showing. It involves a slow back-and-forth scratching on the upper third of the belly. (Manuals note that you shouldn’t look like you’re trying to “saw your animal in half.”)
Some people think cattle just like having their bellies rubbed, though Douglas Parrett, animal sciences professor at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, says that it’s actually a conditioned response to early training. (The animal associates the rubbing with peaceful moments and gentle handling.)
Steve Boyles, the extension beef specialist at Ohio State University, sees another itch being scratched: “I suspect it also calms the exhibitor as well.”