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Anna  Ross Davies
Anna Ross Davies
Anna Ross Davies was Dressage Personality of the Year '08 and 10th at the European Dressage Champs '07 with Liebling. She is a highly respected trainer and producer of horses and riders, and is renowned for her wit!


Rollkur - the most contentious debate of our times?!

09 September 2009

Anna Ross Davies says, "There is a vast difference between a horse that is being ridden a couple of centimetres behind the vertical in a relaxed style in a warm up, and one that that is twisted like a pretzel with his head screwed to his chest, his eyes popping out and running rivers of sweat!" In this article, in her inimitable style, Anna puts the Rollkur debate into perspective!

Phew, it's hot in here...

There are few subjects that provoke as much heated debate as Rollkur. In fact on this website one of the most emotive ever videos, which provoked heated comment and debate, was when our national champion and team silver medalist rode a horse two inches behind the vertical in a soft frame (which resembled nothing like Rollkur) before she picked him up to do his work. This really surprised me as I would have thought it was obvious to anyone who spends time around animals that the horse was quite happy and relaxed and I would have thought most people would have been pleased to see a Grand Prix horse going in such a nice easy way with no pressure!

I must be mad!

When I told a couple of friends that I was going to write this article, the response straight away, was 'you’re brave!' and 'don't touch it!' It seems that on internet forums the most heated subject is the discussion of Rollkur, which I can understand when it looks extreme, but, in my opinion, there seems to be a bit of confusion between what are debatably welfare issues, and a training methodology where the horse is simply not always ridden poll high with his nose in front of the vertical.

Personally, I believe it is also pretty uncomfortable for the horse to be 'above the bit' and hollow in his back for any length of time with a rider on board but that doesn't seem to create anything like the same 'airspace' or moral dilemmas!

So what is Rollkur?

MK demonstrates Rollkur, which he didn't even want to do for the carrot (and he lives for his food), in my view that says it all!For starters then, I think it is important to define what Rollkur (or Hyperflexion, as it's also known) actually is. From a layman's point of view it looks like the neck of the horse is bent down low with his nose a long way into his chest and the front of his head can be bent almost horizontal with the ground. It looks like an unnatural shape for the neck and the horse can appear tense. Prolonged use of this system hasn't yet been proved to be destructive to the horse physically and there are examples of physically healthy retired horses that have been trained in this way, but there is a great deal of debate about whether it is mentally damaging or not.

The idea behind it is to produce more suppleness and submission. It tends to be used on horses that are sharp and hot in temperament. Many horses that are successful in competition at the moment are trained in this way so it is clearly possible to train a horse to Grand Prix using Rollkur. Whether it is ethical or not, is a matter of opinion.


A more common practice for the conformationally challenged

MK is deep and round with the middle of his neck the highest point (ala Maria and Ed in the training video that proved to be contentious)A much more commonly used practice is where horses are ridden with the front of the nose a little behind the vertical with the neck in a lower position and the centre of the neck at the highest point. This frame would be used to stretch out the top line and back muscles of the horse. A horse that is conformationally 'challenged' or built 'upside down' could benefit from being ridden in this way, in that it may help him build the muscle in his back in order to better support the rider. A horse with a lower set neck that is built a little on his forehand probably wouldn't benefit, as training with the neck low would probably send more weight onto the forehand.

In my opinion there is little point riding a horse that is at all behind the leg, behind the vertical at any time, as he will simply drop the connection between the rider’s leg and rein. So this method is probably more successfully used on an over reactive horse that the rider is trying to settle and loosen. Whether riding the horse a little 'over round' is the most productive way to train or not is measured easily by observing the horse when he reaches Grand Prix, and is challenged within the whole test.

Competition outline at all times?

MK shows an accpetable competition frameSome riders aspire from day one to have the horse’s poll as the highest point, nose in front of the vertical and taking the bit, as they would want for competition, regardless of the horse’s conformation or temperament. Whether this is as productive in suppling the horse as putting him a little deeper, can again be judged when the horse arrives at Grand Prix. Call me cynical — but I'm afraid I would doubt the honesty of a rider who informed me, that on their journey to advanced level dressage, their horse had never dropped behind the bit or become a little strong in the rein. Establishing a more effective connection from the rider’s leg to the bit is an important part of the process of training and will develop as the horse and rider progress.

In my experience most people use a combination of the latter two methods, often using the former to stretch the horse before picking him up into a poll high frame. I think there is little value in allowing a horse to drop the contact at any point, whether he is above or behind the bit, as he will have dropped the connection to the hind leg. I also believe that there is little point allowing the horse to amble about on a long rein waiting for the moment that the invisible 'powers that be' grant the gift of connection. Ultimately, as competition riders we are aspiring to be able to present our horses' noses on the vertical and the poll at the top, as that is what is required in competition.

Let's get a perspective

There is a vast difference between a horse that is being ridden a couple of centimetres behind the vertical in a relaxed style in a warm up, and one that that is twisted like a pretzel with his head screwed to his chest, his eyes popping out and running rivers of sweat! Horses can't speak but they do communicate with us all the time through their actions and body language. I think that most of us who surround ourselves with horses 24/7 are aware when they are distressed or not, and make choices accordingly. A very small minority across a broad spectrum of disciplines right down to grass roots level will compromise the mental and physical well-being of their horses to achieve success.

Rollkur is a technique commonly used with 'hot horses' and assumes that the horse is going forward. A horse that is being ridden a couple of inches behind the vertical is probably not yet in front of the leg enough to go and perform a Grand Prix, but it may well be that the rider is in the process of warming up a hotter type of horse and needs to just ride around in a relaxed way before firing up his horse's engine to peak at the right moment. It’s similar to a sprinter doing stretches and jogging before he runs the 100 metres.

Some horses are simply not safe to let out to the buckle end of the rein as soon as they go into competition warm up, hopefully, as they settle they will stretch out and relax. Top dressage horses can be quite highly strung, I don't mind my horses having a bit of a bounce about them if they are feeling jolly but that doesn't mean I'm going to drop my reins when they do!

The Grand Prix challenge tells it all

The Grand Prix challenge isn't about riding individual movements, it is about developing the horse as an athlete, piecing the movements together with the horse remaining focused and with the rider, and exercising the full range of collection and extension. A horse that can only do one part of the test very well is not yet fully developed as an athlete. Otherwise it is like saying that a horse is a top show jumper because it can jump one very large fence in training! That is a very different challenge to jumping a 1m 70 track (although, of course, it could be a world champion puissance horse in the same way that the Russian horse Baluger is a world champion piaffing horse). So to really test different training methods you need to see the finished products in the whole test in the same circumstances, with a knowledge of the training methods used and then decide which is the most productive.

In my own experience, although I certainly aspire to ride my horses in a conventional frame, the only horse I've ever trained that has automatically connected himself, drawing the bit forward from day one, is the one that I rode in my dreams!! I feel that to be the 'happy athlete' a horse needs consistency in his life, a training system he understands that is fair to his body and mind, and access to a field. Then he will be happy whether his nose is two inches in front, two inches behind or in his feed bowl!

(Editor's note: The scientific investigation of Rollkur, as far as this exists, is explained by Dr David Marlin in a comment below. Scroll through the pages to find it.)

Comments

Anna Ross Davies 10 Sep 2009 Hi everyone,

David, thanks so much for taking the time to share your information. It is great that some scientific data has been produced to discuss here. I hope this can be a place where there is a civil and productive debate about the subject of Rollkur and /or riding in a deeper and rounder frame. I think if we can achieve this on Horse Hero I think it would probably be a first!

A key part of the article was to point out that I feel there is a difference between riding in Rollkur and in a round frame, as illustrated, where the poll is not the highest point.

The Rollkur method may have welfare connetations which are being assesed by the studies that David has mentioned. The other could be less effective than riding poll high all the time but doesn't create a potential a welfare 'issue'

So Rollkur creates a welfare debate and I think it is absolutely correct that it should be looked into scientifically but I feel the other method is more suited to a training debate re effectiveness.

Blue Sky, no, I don't train my horses in Rollkur - there is a video of me on this website riding a seven year old horse which can show you my methods much more clearly than I can explain them by text here so I hope you can watch that.

Thanks very much for your comments everyone, I appreciate you taking the time to read the article.

Anna
peaches 10 Sep 2009

Here goes..... This all happened approx 14 yrs ago. I have wanted to tell my story for years. But, when this unfortunate experience happened to me and my horse, hardly anyone in the UK had heard of Rollkur, and I for one didn't realise it was called this either.
My horse and I were being quite successful, we were climbing the ladder gaining good results. I decided to take myself off to a trainer that was hitting the headlines because of thier success, they were considered to be an up and coming 'top trainer'.

I was excited at the thought of going away for 3 days intensive training, with a good trainer.. who wouldn't be. Just before I was due to leave, I bumped into a high listed judge, a very well respected judge, I told this person where I was taking my horse, thinking they would say, 'that's nice for you, have a good time'. But the reply was 'I wouldn't take my horse there if you paid me, I have heard that they are very hard on the horses and tie their heads down with string, and make them go with their chins practically touching their chests'. I thought surely not, and just dismissed it. How stupid was I.

It was difficult to get the time off work, but managed to wangle it. After we had arrived settled in my horse, had a cuppa, I decided to take a walk around to the training menage. I was very intrigued and a bit shocked to see one of the 'up and coming' horses that was often in the H&H going round with it's chin on it's chest. The poor horse actually had string attached to it's bit and onto the girth, the knots were formed so that the rider could lean forward and keep shortening the string. All kinds of thoughts were racing through my head, like 'what have I done'. I thought maybe the horse was a raving lunatic and kept throwing people off. But, no, this was the training method! This particular trainer also had quite a bad temper if the horses they were riding didn't comply with their wishes.

I went back to my lorry, wondering whether this was what this trainer was going to make me do to my horse - I couldn't sleep all night. The problem is, when you are a serious amateur rider, and you go to a 'well respected trainer', who are you to question what they are doing, you are in awe of them. They are someone that you have looked up to, and it's taken a long time to pluck up the courage to go to a trainer of this calibre.

Upon entering the arena the next day, I was a touch nervous, it didn't help that I was being balled at practically from the begining, there is a way to speak to people, if you need to should and ball to get your point accross then you shouldn't be teaching, there are many methods to put over to pupils what you want. I was certainly not a novice, I had been doing well in advanced classes. I had to stand my horse in the arena with short reins holding very tight until my horse really dropped at the poll, then I had to shorten even more, then again wait for my horse to drop at the poll even further, this continued for a while, I could feel the discomfort from my horse, the grunting and head shaking, walking backwards, tail swishing, teeth grinding.

I know you are all thinking 'why didn't I just leave', but when you are a amateur, you just seem to accept that a trainer of this calibre obviously knows what they are doing and wouldn't do anything to harm your horse.... wrong!! After the 3 sessions, 3 days later time to go home. My horse didn't really improve at all over the 3 days, my horse just seemed to get more and more on it's head, I felt like the back end was in the air and the front end was going to Austrialia. My horse was a little lazy by nature, you had to work hard at keeping them in front of the leg, plus they were a little long in the back. When I was walking my horse to the ramp of the box to return home, I thought they were walking a bit stiff, but just felt it was the hard sessions we had had.

Upon arrival at home, my horse seemed to be walking even more strange behind, and my horse was very depressed, didn't want to eat.
The next day I chucked a sickie from work as I was so worried about my horse. I could have cried when I arrived at the yard, my horse was so sore, you couldn't even run a brush over the loins or back area. I put on the head collar and my horse run backwards because of the pressure at the poll. The muscles were raging hot to the touch. My horse was on bute for nearly two weeks. To alleviate their pain.
All kinds of thoughts were going through my head, what has happened? I took my horse out to the school and gave a light lunge to see if it would help unlock some of the sore muscles, but oh, my horse was so lame behind, walking like they had wet themselves, in fact my horse could hardly trot, it was more like a amble come jog.

In my heart I knew what it was, it was the intense training with the head on the chest. My horse's muscles and ligaments were stretched beyond their limits. My horse was off work for nearly a month recovering, in fact they never recovered in the poll/neck region, always sensitive and touchy about pressure their. I rang the trainer and informed them what the training had done to my horse, and they were really mad, screamed down the phone at me, telling me that my horse must have damaged themselves on the way home in the box, or maybe rolled funny. I wanted to argue the point, but again who was I, just an amateur.

The moral of this story is, what happens when amateurs, young and novice riders see horses like Totillas and want to copy the training system? You can only imagine the damage they are going to do to their horses. It's a system for a very special type of horse, sharp and extremely full of energy, naturally uphill, and a system for a very experience trainer that's aware of the dangers or this system.
I for one think that it should be 'banned'! There is no place for this kind of abuse in Dressage, I remember a really good saying, but can't remember who said it...'where brutality exists, the art desists'. Also, horse's that are trained in this way, have a kinda 'legoer' movement, not really totally naturally, there extensions don't really cover the ground.

To anyone that asks me if teaching horses dressage movements is cruel, I just say to them, horses do all of the movements naturally when in liberty, how often do you see horses piaffing with extreme excitement, before they have even been taught this movement, passaging around fields etc. But how often do you see horses running around the fields with thier chins on their chests?!!
I feel ashamed and guilty to this day, that I didn't speak up and have the courage to remove my horse from this training yard after the first day.

When I returned with my horse to the yard where they were kept, people said to me 'I thought you were going to some top notch trainer? look what they've done to your lovely horse... I just cried with embarrasment. So, please please, anyone thinking of trying this system, think hard about it. Also, I would like to say a big thank you to Anna for having the courage to speak up.. you obviously are a caring person when it comes to the training of your horses.

I am a trainer in my own right now, but all the horses that I teach go in a very soft way, full of energy and cadence. Very correct.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, I just hope it will deter people from entering into this system.

David Marlin 10 Sep 2009 Amaretto asked about the science of Rollkur.

From an entirely scientific perspective, the questions that are of interest with respect to Rollkur should be: 1) does it cause pain?; 2) does it cause distress?; 3) does it cause lasting harm (physical or psychological)? Lets take these one by one.

1) Why might Rollkur cause pain? Extending a joint or series of joints (e.g. the neck) beyond its normal range of movement may be uncomfortable. It may lead to a greater range of movement in the long term but initially it will be uncomfortable or even painfull. Try it on yourself. 2) Does it cause distress? We know that bringing the head behind the vertical impairs the function of the larynx (throat) and may produce some sensation if difficulty in breathing (dyspnoea). And finally (3), with respect to lasting harm, is there a specific type of injury that develops with respect to the technique and its repeated use or do we see perhaps abnormal behaviours or aversion in horses trained in this way?

At this stage I have not passed any judgement on Rollkur and I am specifically keeping clear of the equitation question; that is, is it an effectvie training aid?

As far as injuries, if there were acute injuries resulting from Rollkur and if these were relatively common they would likely have been documented in the veterinary and or scientific literature by now. To some extent this would depend on how easy the clinical signs/injury was to spot and the proprotion of horses affected. For example, if Rollkur resulted in immediate left-sided facial paralysis in 99% of horses in which it was used, then we would know about it very quickly. If Rollkur is associated with arthritis of the neck but it takes a minimum of 10 years to develop, then its also conceivable that we would perhaps not become aware of this for another 5-10 years.

So what scientific information is there concerning Rollkur?

In 2006, one of the first papers was published by a group in Holland lead by Dr Marianne Sloet van Oldruitenborgh-Oosterbaan. This study showed that heart rate (which is a conposite indicator of effort +/- stress +/- body temperature +/- blood pressure +/- hydration) was slightly higher when horses were ridden Rollkur. The stress hormone cortisol was not different between horses ridden Rollkur and "free". The authors also stated "No signs of uneasiness or stress could be determined when the horses were ridden 'rollkur'. Subjectively, all horses improved their way of moving during 'rollkur' and were more responsive to their rider". However, these last two lines are not very scientific or objective. But the bottom line of this study is that Rollkur was not stressful or damaging, at least when performed once! This article is available free online to view: http://www.knmvd.nl/uri/?uri=AMGATE_7364_1_TICH_R41001038475199

The second study, also published in 2006 by Dr Eric van Breda (also from Holland), compared "stress" in elite Grand Prix horses being trained with Rollkur and recreational riding horses and found no differences at rest or after exercise. However, I would be critical of this study and its conclusions.

Also in 2006, highly respected locomotion scientist and vet Dr Rene van Weeren (again from Holland) investigated how horses move when ridden in Rollkur. He described the range of motion permitted by individual vertebrae when the head and neck are in varying positions. When the neck was lowered and flexed and the head considerably behind the vertical, as it would be in Rollkür, there was significant flexion in the thoracic region and extension in the lumbar region. Stride length was also shorter and range of motion increased with Rollkur.

Finally, the most recent study was by von Borstel (a Swede working in Canada) and co-workers this year (2009). They tried to investigate if horses being ridden Rollkur experienced stress, discomfort and or fear and if given the choice, whether horses would choose regular poll flexion over Rollkur. Space and time prevents me from describing the experiment in full, so please forgive me. Here are the conclusions from this study:

"Horses moved slower and showed more often behavioural signs of discomfort, such as tail-swishing, head-tossing or attempted bucks, and 14 of the 15 horses chose significantly more often the maze-arm associated with normal poll flexion rather than Rollkur. Subsequently, eight of the horses were also subjected to two fear tests following a short ride in normal poll flexion as well as a ride in Rollkur. During Rollkur horses tended to react stronger to the fear stimuli and to take longer to approach them. These findings indicate that a coercively obtained Rollkur position may be uncomfortable for horses and that it makes them more fearful and therefore potentially more dangerous to ride. Further studies need to assess horses’ reaction to gradual training of Rollkur, as opposed to a coercively obtained hyperflexion, in order to decide whether the practice should be banned"

So, there is limited scientific understanding of Rollkur at this time based on scientific papers published in peer-reviewed literature. This does not include the many "opinion" articles, which are just that. Opinion and no data. There may be further scinetific papers in other languages which I have not found, but these are the ones in the main scientific and veterinary databases. On this basis, the evidence is conflicting and there is no evidence that Rollkur causes long term harm - but then again no one appears to have looked at this aspect yet.

I hope this helps to put the science of Rollkur in perspective,

Dr David Marlin
Pasha 10 Sep 2009 Well said Anna!!!
dfgdf 10 Sep 2009 Good article

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