Marsha Hartford Sapp
Recently, there has much talk and debate about Rollkur. Rollkur, or hyperflexion of the neck is defined as "flexion of the horse's neck achieved through aggressive force" and is has recently been banned by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI). The FEI recognizes a distinction between rollkur and the riding of the horse in a deep outline not achieved by force. The technique has been controversial in the equestrian world, including the set up of specific petitions and boycotts (including a threatened boycott of the London 2012 Olympics). The FEI moved to ban the practice following the release of video of Swedish dressage rider using rollkur during warm up at a competition in Denmark where the horse's tongue appeared to turn blue as a result.
In Rolkur, the horses neck ( cervical vertebrae) is compressed for prolonged periods of time through force, and in extreme cases, the horses mouth can touch it's chest. The horse yields its jaw backwards in response to pressure on the bit. Not only is this unnatural for the horse, it can cause spine and neck problems, problems with the jaw, and back and hock problems. When the horse is ridden in Rollkur, the horse is physically behind the vertical, which makes it difficult to determine if the horse is accepting the bit. Problems with the hocks and back may occur due to the fact the back cannot get soft and through, causing stiffness and lack of correct impulsion from behind. In Rollkur, impulsion and throughness is lost due to a stiff, improperly stretched back, and a stiff "crammed" frame.
Classical dressage promotes the stretching and relaxation of the neck, correct lift and relaxation of the back, and the engagement and swing of the hindquarters. In classical dressage, the rider can choose to make the horse work for periods with its neck lowered and its head behind the vertical, for beneficial reasons, such as suppling, relaxing, and stretching the horse to the rider's leg. Again it is important to clarify the distinction between Rollkur and riding the horse in a deep outline to promote stretching and bending, and correct suppleness through the body
Let us also remember there are other kinds of riding that damage our horses as well.
Riding our horses "above the bit" can be just as detrimental as riding them behind the bit. Regardless of the riding style ( ie. hunters, dressage, western, trail riding, ect) when a horse is above the bit, they are hollow, and the improper use of the back can cause much discomfort and eventually soundness problem.
When a horse is "above the bit", they tense their neck ( under neck muscles), tighten their back, and tense their hindquarters. The result is that they cannot step off correctly with their hind feet. the lack of correct engagement from the hind legs cause the back to drop, and back soreness will soon follow. As a result, the horse has to overuse the front legs to compensate, so you see front leg issues as well as hock issues as well.
Let us understand that there is no "one method" to ride a horse, however, there are methods that are certainly more effective, more humane, and more beneficial to the horse than others. There are many ways to ride a horse that may be right and even more ways that might be wrong Every horse needs to be treated as an individual. The way a horse needs to be ridden will change from time to time as their muscle development, balance, and training level progresses. Injuries, time off, and other set backs may change the way we ride our horses in their daily training rides. Some horses may be ridden deeper that others, due to their breed characteristics and conformation. Some horse naturally push better from behind, while others need more help to develop in that area. We should always ask ourselves if we are using proven, humane methods to develop our horses and pay attention to whether our horses are thriving and adjusting well to their work."
Let us not judge any particular style of riding, and instead ride in a manner that suits our individual horse so that it may utilize its talents to their fullest.
Let us ride our horses with common sense, and in a manner to promote a happy, healthy, and sound horse for its lifetime!