I would be hard-pressed to say which of the controversial equitation techniques I find most appalling, there are many. However, I decided to look at rollkur for an assignment for one of the Equine Behaviour courses I’ve taken. It’s a topic that came up again recently in Global Perspectives in Equine Welfare because of the inherent contradictions of the practice. While to some it is obvious that the horse is in a state of distress, others associate it with grace and beauty. It is a position achieved by force with the application of excessive and prolonged pressure on the mouth to hold the horse’s head down in a hyper-flexed position, as is commonly seen is dressage.
The welfare implications include discomfort, pain, and compromised breathing and vision (McGreevy et al, 2010). It is this impaired vision that is thought to make the horse appear more responsive to the rider, as the horse is more reliant on the rider’s cues than its own senses of vision and proprioception (von Borstel et al., 2009).
In a study of 15 horses during the conditioning phase of rollkur, a number of behaviours that are significant indicators of stress, discomfort, frustration, and conflict were recorded. The results indicate notable increases in tail-swishing, attempted bucks, crabbing, abnormal oral behaviour, ears fixed back, and head-tossing when in rollkur versus normal poll flexion. 14 of the 15 horses exhibited a distinct preference for regular poll flexion versus rollkur (von Borstel et al., 2009).
Another concern is that inducing any degree of hyperflexion is in violation of the principles of learning theory because it requires two simultaneous responses (neck flexion and deceleration) to one cue (bit pressure) (McGreevy et al., 2009).
On the advice of a former riding instructor, I purchased the book Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage: A search for a classical alternative by Philippe Karl (2014). In it, Karl presents the physical impacts of rollkur by muscle group. Here’s a brief summary:
- The cervical ligaments undergo extreme and prolonged stretching that may lead to tearing, separation, and inflammation
- The parotid glands are compressed and may become distorted, resulting in very painful inflammation and a loss of elasticity
- The brachio-cephalic muscles, which connect the head to the forelegs, are extremely shortened and contracted, overloading and blocking the movement of the shoulders
Furthermore, the horse’s vision is negatively affected, with limited monocular vision to the sides and a very limited range of binocular vision at its feet. The horse is essentially moving blindly, unable to attain a full field of vision. The horse’s sense of gravity is also thought to be affected by the fixed head position.
The inability of the horse to properly sense its position through the normal tactile, visual and gravitational senses may result in balance disorders akin to seasickness. At least that’s a theory presented in this book.
Karl states “overbending, an unnatural attitude obtained by hands that are pulled backwards by various restraining devices, is a vulgar approach…and arises from a serious lack of knowledge of the horse…It is an authoritarian and brutal approach to domination that significantly deprives the horse of its capacities and places ‘man’s noblest conquest’ in the position of a slave restrained in shackles” (p. 27).
The Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) has effectively banned rollkur from competition and training, however, it still permits sustained flexion of the horses’ neck as long as the nose remains in front of the vertical. It is also still acceptable to maintain a horse’s head and neck carriage in a sustained or fixed position for up to 10 minutes during training exercises (Horsetalk.co.nz, 2010).
Imagine what it would feel like to have your head held in a fixed position by 5 kilograms of force – the mean rein tension recorded in dressage to maintain a horse’s head and neck posture (International Society for Equitation Science, undated). Can any degree of forced, sustained flexion be considered ethical?
This is in direct contradiction of the main teaching of negative reinforcement training – that correct, welfare-appropriate training is achieved when pressure is released as soon as the desired response is performed. The “ability of the horse to maintain a particular head and neck posture that is appropriate for the stage of training without continuous or high rein tension, is fundamental to maintaining welfare” (International Society for Equitation Science, undated).
To do otherwise should be correctly labeled as excessive force and punishment.
Horsetalk.co.nz. (2010). “Rollkur: FEI offers hyperflexion guidelines.” Retrieved from http://www.horsetalk.co.nz/news/2010/05/081.shtml#axzz571BCD1Bj
International Society for Equitation Science. (undated). ISES position statement on alterations of the horses’ head and neck posture in equitation. Retrieved from http://equitationscience.com/file_download/141/ISES_PS_on_alterations_of_the_cervical_vertebrae_in_equitation.pdf
Karl, Philippe. (2014). Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage: A search for a classical alternative. (5th ed.). Richmond, UK: Cadmos Publishing Limited
McGreevy, P.D., Harman, A., McLean, A. & L. Hawson. (2010). “Over-flexing the horse’s neck: A modern equestrian obsession.” Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research. 5(4) 180-186
Von Borstel, U.U., Heatly Duncan, I.J., Shoveller, A.K., Merkies, K., Keeling, L.J., and S.T. Millman. (2009). “Impact of riding in a coercively obtained Rollkur posture on welfare and fear of performance horses.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 116(2-4) 228-236
By Oliver Abels