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?
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
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?
Some 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.)