Monday, March 5, 2012

Rollkur Revisited

Monday March 5 2012

Part I of a 2-Part Series

I know this debate is old, but seeing that this is still a regular practice, it bears bringing up again. Every time I see this method being used, it still brings up this vexing question: What on earth is the purpose of this??

I know the practice of Rollkur was officially threatened with "punishment" by the FEI in February of 2010. 

FEI defines rollkur as "flexion of the horse's neck achieved through aggressive force." Or you could call it  hyperflexion where the horse's head and neck are contorted past vertical.

FEI Director Trond Asmyr stated in a video back then, "All aggressive riding is not acceptable, whether it is in dressage or other disciplines…. The group agreed that any form of aggressive riding must be sanctioned."

This brings up two questions:

 • Is, then, hyperflexion of the horse's neck okay if it's done without "aggressive force"?

 • What is "aggressive force"?

This brilliant idea of hyperflexion spilled over into the Western discipline. The shots on this page are from warm-up arenas at a couple of huge, well-known shows. Just about everybody there was doing it. Yank-yank-yank up on the reins, to get the horses to cram their heads further into their chest and hold it there. If the head came up at all - you know, for the horse to look where it was going or to breathe - yank-yank-yank to get the head back down. Is that aggressive force?

Do me a favor when you're done reading this, and go outside, shove your own chin hard into your chest and hold it there and jog a half mile. How's that feel? Is your head in an unnatural position? Can you see where you are going? Can you breathe right? Can you swallow? Have you torn some of your neck muscles?

When these horses' heads are cranked beyond vertical, can they see where they're going? Can they breathe right? Can they swallow? Are the neck vertebrae and ligaments and tendons and muscles tweaked and tearing? 

Do you consider this look 'pretty'? Does the head and neck look unnatural to you? Do you have eyeballs with which to see? Do you have common sense? 

Apparently some trainers feel the horse has to be trained in this unnatural position to… to do what? What can't you 'force' your horse to do without this method? Is this Rollkur, or isn't it? Is this partnership with your horse, or is it complete domination? Can you not ride without completely dominating your horse?

I certainly don't want my endurance horses going down the trail with their heads high in the air, but nor do I see why I would want my endurance horse, or any horse, going along with his chin shoved into his chest. (And on second thought, I used to ride an endurance horse that did 8500 career miles with his head up in the air, won 4 Tevis buckles in a row, competed till his mid-20's, and lived to be about 30. He was never dominated, and he had a long successful career and life.)

And I have seen many good dressage and Western riders that do not force their horses into this unnatural position, and their horses move nicely and seem to be doing all that is asked of them, and doing it well, and you can see a definite partnership.

This horse seems to be moving well and behaving well without having to over-flex. 

I wonder, how ever did this bastardization of classical dressage come to be a fad, ("round top line, collected moving is great - let's way over-do it!" ??). How did JUDGES get suckered into approving this??

Theresa Sandin took a good look at this issue on here.

Apparently Dutch dressage rider and coach Sjef Janssen started this method back in the 1980's. Here are some quotes from Janssen:  "…riding them deep is very good for the horse, especially the neck and the flexibility." "…two professors have conducted a research project, and soon there is an article to be published, and so what we did unconsciously in our training has now been proven very good for the horse's well being." (Anybody seen this article yet?)

One can find any number of 'experts' who will try to explain away this system with muscle diagrams and techno-speak, which makes people feel better about using the method because they can point to something or someone to justify it. 

However, if you USE YOUR COMMON SENSE and your OWN EYEBALLS, you can see that this is not right. "Riding Deep" my A$$. It not only looks unnatural and is not beneficial to the horse, it's harmful and it looks stupid.

Can anybody tell me why this is supposed to be a good thing?

[slide show here]

Next is Part II: Rollkur and Endurance Riding


  1. Ugly side of horse training, in my opinion. It does so much harm, and I don't know what good it can do. I see it as a short cut that good honest training would achieve.

  2. Compare these over flexed horses with the bridleless, saddleless perfection of Stacy Westfall's winning freestyle reining programs, and notice where the horse naturally carried his and her head. The last reining show I was at, I was pretty disgusted at the jerk -jerk- over flex routine being used in the warm up pen, and I seriously don't think it enhances the horse's performance, and that it is a fad that trainers think they have to do just because some big name trainer does it. Those horses probably win despite the tactics of force, not because of it.

  3. i wonder if sjef has to walk around in sunglasses, hat, and never alone? cuz if he ever crosses my path, i'll knock him down and i might even use bad words.

    it IS pretty when horses flex like this, e.g. when a stallion is showing off, he does it. he doesn't do it long enough to hurt himself though, just long enough to look pretty and impress the other horses.

  4. The theory is that by getting the horse "deep and low" it will free up his back as well since he cannot go hollow with the overflexed neck.

    Unfortunately, to some degree, that is true. And using a neck flexion to release a tension can work BUT if it is used it should be a momentary correction released as soon as the horse softens.

    The trouble is, in Rolkur, the horse is not released or rewarded for softening to the bit. Thus it becomes a cruel, unrelenting punishment for putting any kind of pressure on the bit.

    I had a Danish trainer ride my horse when I had a broken wrist and I regret to this day that I did not stop him after the first half hour as he kept resorting to rolkur. My horse's back required three chiropractic/acupuncture treatments to come sound afterwards. I learned a harsh lesson that day. --It was before I knew better.

    Riding in rolkur in the competition arena will not score well, but horse "trained" by rolkur will carry themselves in what appears to be a correct frame for fear of having their mouths grabbed, so they often score well with kind of "fixed" headsets.

    Trying to get a truly correct contact through the back on a horse that has been trained that way is a very difficult reschool.

    FEI stewards in the warm up arenas are supposed to stop/report rolkur infractions, but some Internet evidence claims they do not always do it.

    It is a sad state of affairs.

  5. Oh... it's so nasty, so cruel & so senseless...

  6. Speaking of things that make my blood boil...

  7. This practice of over flexing really bothers me and is one reason I have a hard time even considering getting back into the show world or dressage world. It is WRONG, PERIOD...

  8. I do not condone over flexion but I have Seen horses do this without any force to evaide contact. Over the bit is the same as under the bit only opposite

  9. Touche. I totally agree with you that this is an abnormal position. It makes me feel uncomfortable that anyone would treat their equine "partner" this way. Does not look like a partnership to me. Looks cruel, unnatural, and actually takes away from the beauty of the maneuver. Shame on orgs. that do not denounce this.

  10. Our Arabians work a heck of a lot more then your horses that go with their heads in the air. They're not freaking endurance horses. THEY ARE SHOW HORSES. If it hurt them they could get out of it. Heck they are thousand pound animals agains 100 pound person. I don't agree with all trainers methods BUT don't go saying that all these show horses are getting abused. Just come to one of our shows and see how loved they are. Just so you don't keep going around saying "that's not the Arabian's natural position" it is for an arabian show horse. If these horses were in pain, do to their head set they could get out of it. Arabian trainers are not cruel to their horses. And if you're saying that about a western pleasure horse. Take a look at an arabian country English pleasure horse. Get your facts right before start saying that about our breed.

  11. You come to as arabian show and you just see if we are cruel. HA good luck with that. We aren't. Don't go talkin crap. Before you know the hole story. Or before you have seen an arabian show horse in action.