The goats of this breed have a host of names: Myotonic, Tennessee Fainting, Tennessee Meat, Texas Wooden Leg, Stiff, Nervous, and Scare goats. The names refer to the animal’s myotonia congenita, a condition in which the muscle cells experience prolonged contraction when the goat is startled. The transitory stiffness associated with these contractions can cause the goat to fall down. This is not a true faint, but a muscular phenomenon unrelated to the nervous system. The degree of stiffness varies from goat to goat, with some showing a consistently stiff response and others exhibiting stiffness only rarely.
The breed’s history can be traced back to the 1880s. An itinerant farm laborer named John Tinsley came to central Tennessee, reputedly from Nova Scotia. Tinsley had with him four unusual, stiff goats. Goats of this type gradually became known across the region. They were less apt to climb fences and escape from pastures than other goats, and their muscular conformation and high reproductive rate were also valued. Farmers began to appreciate them, and the numbers of “stiff,” “nervous,” or “fainting” goats increased. During the 1950s, some Tennessee Fainting goats were taken to the hill country of central Texas. They were further selected for meat qualities, including larger size, and came to be known as “Wooden Leg” goats.
In the late 1980s, both the Tennessee and Texas branches of this breed were rediscovered. The new enthusiasm for the goats diverged into two major endeavors. One group of breeders worked in the historic tradition, emphasizing the meat qualities of the animals and selecting for growth rate, conformation, and reproductive efficiency. The other group selected for extreme stiffness and small size, promoting the breed as a novelty animal.
As a landrace breed, Tennessee Fainting goats were always variable in size. This variability, emphasized by recent selection, has given rise to a population that can range from 60 to 175 pounds. Heavily muscled conformation is consistent among these goats. The ears of Tennessee goats are larger and more horizontal than Swiss breeds, but smaller and less drooping than Nubian or Spanish goats. The facial profile is usually concave. Most goats are horned, and horns vary from large and twisted to small and simple. While most of the goats have short hair, long-haired goats are not unusual and some animals produce cashmere.
Tennessee Fainting goats are found in almost all colors known in goats. Kidding season is always exciting, as new color combinations pop up. Since does like to keep their kids hidden for a few days, looking for these multicolored kids can be like hunting Easter eggs. Does are prolific with an extended breeding season. Some even bear kids every six months, and most regularly produce twins or triplets and have plenty of milk to raise them.
The Tennessee Fainting goat is gaining attention for its combination of meat traits with reproductive efficiency, and it is increasingly recognized as an important genetic resource in the United States. Goats are being used both as purebreds and for crossing with other breeds, especially the Boer goat, a recent import from South Africa. While crossbreeding can demonstrate the genetic value of the Tennessee Fainting goat, overuse of purebred does for crossing would threaten the survival of this unique and important American goat breed. It is a high conservation priority.
Video: Dr. Phil Sponenberg, Ph.d. on Fainting goats
Did you know:
The Livestock Conservancy is America’s leading organization working to save over 150 heritage breeds from extinction. We rely on the support of our members, grants, and donations from the public to raise the $700,000 a year needed to maintain our conservation work with rare breeds of farm animals. Click here to learn how you can help.