The television coverage of the equestrian events at the 2012 London Olympic Games and the facility to watch every moment on-line over and over again was wonderful for enthusiasts but also re-awakened concerns that not everyone was playing by the rules. During both the individual and team dressage events the banished spectre of Rollkur reared its ugly head again. Sadly it seemed that a blind eye was turned to horses performing consistently with overly shortened necks, heads wedged firmly behind the vertical and chins tucked into chests. Internationally renowned riders (some of whom finished in the medals) still received what appeared to be disproportionately high scores for work which every novice dressage competitor would instantly recognise as incorrect. And the pictorial evidence was there for all to see – over and over again.
Rollkur has long been a controversial training technique imported from Europe several decades ago. It involves the aggressive and forceful hyperflexion of the horse's neck, effectively coercing the victim into an artificially long, deep and low outline and holding it there for long periods. The practice was recognised as unacceptable abuse and banned by the FEI following the release of video evidence showing Swedish dressage rider Patrik Kittel using Rollkur whilst warming up for a competition in Denmark. Kittel's horse's tongue turned blue and there were clear signs of distress.
Rollkur should not be confused with working the horse long and low through the use of leg into contact as an encouragement to stretch and a means of achieving suppleness, relaxation and connection over a loose, free and swinging topline.
Understandably, many horses resist attempts to ride them using Rollkur and riders then force the horse's head down by lowering and fixing the hands until the horse yields to the pressure of the bit. Once "submission" is achieved, rather than releasing the horse as an acknowledgement that he has done as asked, the rider will then make the horse work in the extreme Rollkur posture sometimes for extended periods without a break.
Rollkur flies in the face of the principles of classical dressage and correct schooling of the horse. The resultant false outline and way of going is incorrect and has no place in the dressage arena. Due to the compression of the vertebrae during Rollkur, all throughness and impulsion are lost as the horse's topline is stiff and lacking suppleness and elasticity. The contact is incorrect as the horse is evading the bit by ducking behind it rather than seeking to take the bit and offer the rider a soft, elastic contact down the rein. The result is a miserable, tense, stiff and overbent horse who works with a tight, hollow back and trailing hocks and will most likely be on the forehand rather too.
Were such a horse to be presented in my arena, I would most certainly not be giving a sheet full of 8s and 9s, regardless of who was riding.
Dressage is about achieving harmony between horse and rider, developing the horse's natural athletic ability through correct, systematic training and working patiently through the scales of training as a partnership. Rollkur surely has no place here.
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