Abstract In a form of top-down analysis, the femur-tibia control system of stick insects is investigated. Open-loop experiments show that it is mainly velocity-sensitive with an extremely low velocity-threshold, that it possesses a very high gain and that it has only a very small phase reserve and thus works close to instability. The closed-loop system generates catalepsy. The system consists of a single sense organ with approximately 80 sense cells with known characteristics, a small number of interneurones (mainly non-spiking ones) and a small number of motor neurones. The characteristics of the whole system can quantitatively be attributed to the characteristics of its elements. The gain of the loop is state-dependent and the system is ‘switched off’ during active movements and replaced by a control system with different attributes. It is discussed that most of the characteristics of this system are, at least qualitatively, similar to joint control systems in other animals. Because the described system can be more easily investigated than other systems (especially in vertebrates) it can serve as a model against which more complicated joint control loops may be compared.