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The Curse of Rollkur
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The Curse of Rollkur

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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  1. PonyGirl
    Excellent article! I couldn't agree with you more. In so many disciplines, people with no understanding of the original (and practical) purpose of a show class use artificial (and usually cruel) methods to try and win at all costs, resulting in a caricature of the type of horse in question.I was taught the purpose of dressage is to show the lightness and WILLINGNESS of the horse to the rider's wishes. Any time force is used, the whole purpose of dressage is defeated. In western pleasure, the point is to show a relaxed, comfortable riding horse. A western horse goes on a loose rein and should have his neck relaxed and level from withers to poll. Now you have horses going with their heads so unnaturally low that their noses are almost in the dirt. This unnatural head set is achieved by tying their heads down for long periods of time. I have also heard (I hope it's not true) that some people cut a ligament in the horse's neck to achieve this. And of course the Tennessee Walking Horses whose original purpose was to be fast walking, extremely smooth riding horses have been forced into higher and higher action by "soring" their ankles (using caustic substances and abrasive chains or wooden beaded anklets). In my book, people who use these methods, can in no way be considered horsemen, and only show how little they understand their sport.
    1. autumnap
      Thank you kindly! One of my pet hates is seeing horses in the dressage with spur marks, sometimes bleeding. This is usually because the rider has legs too short for the horse they're riding (usually an enormous warmblood) and can't get it in front of their leg. But that's another post altogether! x
  2. Jane
    Always very interesting Alison. Its so refreshing to read this point of view, I get frustrated looking at the way some so-called accomplished riders force their horses into totally unnatural outlines whilst other look on admiringly. Voted up.
    1. autumnap
      Many thanks! You've hit the nail on the head with your comment. Those who are knowledgeable and well instructed are unimpressed by false, forced outlines but it's those who don't know any better who are. And it's those people who then rush off home to try to copy the wonderful international stars by using some awful shortcut. They then don't understand why they get such poor marks and no doubt blame the poor horse! x
  3. spirithorserider
    Terrific article. Couldn't agreee more. It is sad that when something becomes "popular," it can herald its degradation. So it seems with dressage, but it doesn't have to be that way. People who ride for their business, whose income depends upon winning sometimes resort to these techniques and I think they become habit, even among some of the best riders in the world. A real shame. A friend of mine, Ruth, used to attend lots of clinics with big names. She went to one that was an invitation only for auditors. When Ruth asked the friend who invited her why keep out the public when seeing how the highest levels are schooled is so beneficial to those coming up the ranks, her friend (a dressage judge, no less) informed her that a lot of people riding the lower levels would only be confused and upset by the techniques being used, that they would never understand and might object to what was going on. She shared this information with me. It was over a decade ago. I know it upset Ruth that the so-called "successful" riders felt they had to hide their training techniques from "the great unwashed." But it is a statement that, even though they know these techniques, such as the Rollkur, are not just un-classical, but just plain wrong, they continue to do them so they can win. That there are judges who turn a blind eye, often for political reasons because the rider is such a big name, is even worse. We need more people like you, Allison, speaking up for what is correct and good for the horse. I've had friends who insisted that simply because they were riding dressage, everything they did was good for the horse, even when they were apparently unwittingly abusing their horses at the instruction of their trainers. More people need to speak out. Keep up the good work!
    1. autumnap
      Many thanks, that's very kind. There's nothing wrong with having ambition and keeping your eyes on the prize, but personal success should never be at the cost of the horse's welfare. x

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