Rollkur – The Basic Disadvantages Tuesday, Jan 8 2008 

One disadvantage to the use of rollkur has been mentioned as an advantage (confusing I know, but it somewhat depends on your views). The shortening of the brachiocephalic muscles which is seen through prolonged use of rollkur creates a high front leg action often admired in the competition arena. On the other hand, it results in a mismatch of the legs through the gaits as the high leg action created in the forelegs isn’t duplicated in the hind legs. This creates a rather disunited looking trot particularly.

Next we move to the horse’s field of vision. Bringing this back to the basics of what horses are; we’re dealing with flight animals – prey animals. Horses in nature are hunted and when faced with something unfamiliar they have seconds to assess whether it is a threat to their lives. Their reaction to something that is a threat? To run of course; that IS a horses’ natural defence. When riding, if a horse perceieves something in the distance, it will raise it’s head and focus on the target – assessing it. When it perceives something closer to it, the head will drop allowing it to shift it’s vision. The horses’ field of vision follows down it’s nose. Imagine then, that as a prey animal, we remove it’s ability to assess it’s surroundings for potential dangers. While this has the “bonus” of giving additional control to a spooky horse (read above in the claimed advantages of rollkur), it has the severe disadvantage of bringing undue stress to the horse. Indeed, the findings of the FEI Veterinary and Dressage Committee employed to investigate the long term effects of the use of rollkur and LDR stressed the necessity for ANY training method to ensure minimum and preferably no undue stress was brought upon the animal.

From a personal point of view, I believe the ethics of limiting a horse’s field of view to the extent of them literally being able to see their own feet is beyond stressful and touching on cruel.

The next problem with rollkur links to another commonly seen site amongst horses ridden in rollkur; excessive salivating of the mouth. Foam stained shoulders are a common site amongst these horses and while some degree of dampening in the mouth is a good thing and seen as a sign of the acceptance of the bit, excessive salivating like this is a problem with a very simple cause. The hyperflexion of the neck and the pinning in of the head reduces the horse’s capacity to actually swallow. The horse tenses his jaw in direct objection to the forcing of the head. This is sometimes masked with overly tight nosebands (I’ll discuss this somewhat in another post).

There is another major category of disadvantages relating to the physiology of the animal. As these require a deeper look at the structural makeup of the horses’ anatomy, it will be discussed later in it’s own section.

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Rollkur – The Claimed Advantages Tuesday, Jan 8 2008 

So why use it? Clearly, there must be advantages to such methods? With proponents such as Anky Van Grunsven and Isabella Werth, people who’s list of achievements in the dressage world are vast, there have to be significant advantages to training this way. Afterall, their results speak for themselves, how bad can these methods be?

The number one cited reason for using rollkur is to help lift the abdominal muscles and encourage the horse to work correctly over it’s back. In addition to this, the argument goes one step further. Advocates claim that warmbloods these days are huge and many of the dressage riders are female; legs need to wrap around the barrel of these horses and weight and strength becomes an issue. It is argued, therefore, that the use of rollkur can help female riders activate the backs of their enormous mounts and of course, an underlying aim of dressage is to encourage the horse to round over it’s back correctly (a rounded back being the safest way for a horse to carry a rider without causing physical injury to itself. So for the longterm physiology of the animal, a rounded back is a necessity)

Secondly, the continued and longterm use of rollkur shortens the muscles that connects the base of the skull to the horse’s forearm (the braciocephalic muscle.) Ultimately, this will create a quite extravagent front leg action where the leg is lifted rather high (a trait that appears popular in the competitive world). In itself, this has a drawback however. While the prolongued use of rollkur effects the front legs in this way, it has no effect on the hind legs. The result? A rather disunited looking horse, particularly in the trot gait. If you were to cut the picture in half, the front end doesn’t appear to match the hind end. This disunited looking trot is commonly seen in international dressage arenas and is a tell tale giveaway of the training methods that occur behind the scenes.

In addition to the above points is the argument that it gives additional control to rider’s of excessively spooky animals, or those likely to bolt. Some claim the hyperflexion releases endorphine which have a calming effect. Indeed, the defense of Nicole Uphoff and trainer Henry Boldt over pictures of her training very deeply were that Rembrandt had just spooked and necessited such extreme riding.

Another advantage of rollkur comes from the demands placed on both the horses and riders in the modern dressage world. Expensive horses are saught out by trainers for their more novice clients. Often the fate of these horses is to remain on schooling livery with the trainers to ensure that their standard of work doesn’t deteriorate due to incorrect riding, insufficient work and so on. Many of these owners do, however, expect their horses to compete for them and produce results. An often seen situation is that the owners have neither the time nor the inclination to put in the work to learn how to ride these horses and the trainers are under pressure to produce results and keep these combinations winning. The solution? Create a more rideable animal or one that can, for at least a short term, hold an artificial frame with less influence from the rider. Working horses heavily in a rollkur position builds up muscles across the neck that support this frame. Many riders who support and employ these techniques will claim with jubilation that their horses are light in their hands and therefore must be displaying a degree of self carriage! This is very much not the case and having ridden rollkured horses myself, they are correct in a way. A horse trained heavily in a hyperflexed position will have neck muscles unable to stretch as they should. The result? You can put a novice rider on board and have a horse that maintains this neck curl position through the duration of the test.

In so many novice circles, it is the neck curl that is considered attractive. Untrained eyes don’t care to look over an unconnected back, an outline broken at the third vertebrae or a lazy hindleg; the neck curl is “pretty”. This enables trainers to keep their students content as they are able to go out and win in competitions with relatively little effort required.

A Look At Rollkur – What Is It? Tuesday, Jan 8 2008 

Rollkur, as an issue, has dominated equestrian debate for a number of years now. Contrary to popular belief however, it’s not a “new” technique. It’s use first caused debate in the late 80’s when a photographer took secret pictures of Nicole Uphoff (Germany) working her horse (Rembrandt) very deep and overbent. When the pictures were published, there was a massive public outcry about this but both herself and her trainer (Harry Boldt) denied this was any form of training technique. They argued that the pictures represented a moment in time where the horse had reacted and spooked during work and Nicole had ridden him very deep to regain control. Indeed, the “moment in time” defense has been used numerous times over the years when a rider has come under debate due to this technique.

Rollkur is a rather contentious issue drawing very outspoken advocates on either side of the debate. This frequently leaves some people in the dark, not actually knowing quite what rollkur is but fearing to ask due to the outcry that tends to errupt.

Rollkur is a schooling technique – modern in terms of the grand scheme of things (at least when you consider that the methods of Xenophon are still strictly adhered to by many). As a training method, it is characterised by riding with an extreme hyperflexion of the neck (that is to say, it’s very overbent and frequently with the chin almost touching the chest). Other common terms are LDR (long, deep, round) or indeed, hyperflexion itself. It’s a common site in dressage warm up arenas around the world and this in itself is one of the problems with rollkur.

Rollkur frequently also features strong lateral flexion as seen here.

It is worth noting that fans of LDR will argue there is a difference between it’s methods and rollkur (rollkur tending to be a derrogatory term these days). Their argument being that while they ride their horses in a state of hyperflexion, they also let them out to stretch for periods in between where as people riding in rollkur will not. Perhaps the strongest speaker over these differences is Sjef Janssen, trainer and partner to Anky Van Grunsven, both of whom started speaking openly about the use of these methods relatively recently.

Rollkur forces the horse into a frame that it would never hold itself. As such, it tends to be created either by the use of a strong hand (generally done in a double bridle to allow for hefty use of the curb rein), or via draw reins and other supplementary reins. It can be produced either under saddle or on the lunge (in this case obviously, addition “training reins” have to be employed to create the desired flexion).

Power and Paint - European Pony Championships 2007

I strongly disagree with the use of rollkur, for reasons that will be explained over a number of articles on this blog. I will, however, attempt to present both sides of the argument; looking at the commonly listed reasons for using rollkur.