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Equiery Readers Comment on Rollkur

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I don't know much about the method, except what I've read in some magazines.  I always thought that if an athlete, be it animal or human, is warming up (or being warmed up) for exercise, they usually stretch themselves out, not roll inward.  --
--Susanne Brown


I think that rollkeur, or "extreme deep" is an unnecessary shortcut in most cases to getting a horse to "look round" without actually being round and through the back.  Cranking your horses' head and neck around to each side and holding them there for lengthy periods of time are cruel and cheap ways to "train your horse."   

In some cases a horse might benefit from a slightly deep flexion for a few seconds, but only for just that, a few seconds, and only on occasion, and only for very few horses.  Those situations would have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and I would hope that if this method were used it would be merely to guide the horse to the desired result, not force them.  

I personally would not use this method (although I have had people try to get me to) and think people who do use it perhaps either aren't educated on the negative effects this training method can have on their horse long term (physical as well as emotional/trust issues), or are just too lazy to put some solid basics on both the horse and rider. 

To me, it is the same as when you have to use artificial aids on EVERY ride in order to ride your horse (i.e. draw reins, martingales etc) - sure it works while you use it, but what happens after you take the aids off?  You're back at square one.  Why not throw the time wasters away and just start off with the basics.  Some horse/rider teams master them quickly, some take longer, but it shouldn't matter - each team needs to take whatever time they need to get the foundation solid before moving on.
-- AnneMichelle Johnson

 

I have grave concerns about rollkur and its viability as a generally accepted training method for today's dressage horses.
Yes, there are some experts who can use this effectively without damaging their horses, but the potential for abuse is so large and so critical that it far outweighs any possible benefits for the lower level rider and even for the few who are doing upper level work. Draw reins, German martingales and gag bits can also be used gently and effectively in the 'right' hands, but if you stack up the abuses against the occasions where they are helpful, it's horrifying.


I would like to see this practice and debate fade away into the same obscurity into which blindfolding and sacking out has faded.  let's get back to working the pyramid, the slow old-fashioned way.
-- Suzanne Thackston


Thanks for asking for opinions.  I absolutely oppose this method of training.  It cannot be comfortable for the horse.  Fortunately, a long list of the world's top trainers including Walter Zettl have banded together to oppose it formally, and I hope many Americans will support them.
 

-- Laura Van Etten

 

While I'm not an FEI rider, I think rollkur is like any other technique that has it's uses but unfortunately, get a lot of press and subsequently becomes overused and abused. People read that top dressage riders are using X technique or X gadget without getting the full story behind the reasoning or technique. Nor do people take time to learn how to use the technique or gadget correctly and then there are cries of abuse and cruelty. Likewise, I've seen people abuse Spanish Riding School exercises because they see the SRS doing it and thus it must be good for their horse. They do not take into consideration the SRS only rides Lippizans Training a chunky cart horse (which is what the Lippizan was originally bred for) is not the same as training a lanky thoroughbred or big warmblood.
 
I've used rollkur in my training but in moderation and with plenty of leg to keep the horse engaged and through. It is not the only exercise I do and I mainly do it as a warm-up for about 5 minutes or so. I think what is happening is that people are cranking their horse's heads down but not using enough leg to keep the horse engaged and pushing from behind. This is my complaint with side reins, draw reins, martingales or any other gadget that is supposed to set the horse's head. Head carriage means nothing without impulsion, balance, and connectiveness. If a horse isn't engaged from behind, it is not going to carry it's head properly no matter how long you crank it's nose to it's chest, just like lounging in side reins, riding with draw reins or a martingale. The horse might look correct until you take off the gadget and then it's head will creep back up.
 
I compare rollkur to what happened with rapping in the jumping world or the use of chains with gaited horses. Unfortunately, people saw this as a quick fix and went overboard so these techniques have been maligned when otherwise they have legitimate uses.
 
Personally, I think the real problem in the dressage world and in the equestrian world as a whole in the US is pushing young horses too hard, too fast. I think the age limit for FEI levels should be upped to 9 or 10 and the young horse tests should be done away with. I think the young horse tests encourage people to push their horses too fast, too soon whereas if they had to compete them through the levels, they wouldn't go as far so quickly.
 
-- Deb Fuller 

 

Flexing a horse with an inverted neck is difficult and using Hyper flexion to stretch the muscles assists is reconstruction of the neck and thereby the balance for self carriage.  It is a stretch and the goal is to not be held with force.  Often a lot of muscle is needed to get the stretch which can be done on the ground too and, if so done, assists when in the saddle.  With time and kind persistence, a horse that dives into the bit and uses the hands and the bit as a "fifth leg," will go into self carriage without force.  The rider must sit correctly and hold the legs securely or s/he will teach the horse to fight and only strengthen the "fifth wheel" attitude. Very complex in reality and demands objective sensitivity but will get such a horse into self carriage quickly and may have to be used to remind the horse where his body is supposed to be.
--Jacqueline Holland

 


Just search the web by putting in rollkur training, and you can see this is not a new debate. There is an Eclectic Horseman Communication thread that started discussing soft hands. That one thread created a lot of comments pro and con.

 

I do agree with one or two things I read, I think there is definitely a separation of what people use in training a horse and how or what is expected in the show ring. It seems that there is not a clear understanding, or something is over done, where something that was done towards one result, turns out to be done or used incorrectly and bad results happen, and we get to these stages of what is good, bad, classical, etc.

 

In doing "rollkur', I see it in training, it seems to me as having the same or similar values as the stretchy circle that is performed in the training level test, only as a horse moves up the levels he develops muscles and carrying power differently, and greater degree of suppleness is required and the horse should also become more flexible, but he also needs to stretch the back and neck. So that when done by, and understood by a competent horse person, it is sort of the advance stretchy circle and used much in the same way.

 

I attended and audited a clinic by Dr. Cesar Parra, his explaining, showing, and pointing out the correct total look and frame of the so called "low and deep", (rollkur) was brought up in discussion. With that seen with my own eyes, is why I see this done correctly, as a positive thing just as the lower training stretchy circle.

 

Everyone goes to the nose going behind, but when done as I see it done correctly, it is the lowering of the neck and the stretch of the whole back and the nose is not behind, nor is the horse bent at the improper vertebrae.

 

The horse is relaxed, going very forward and straight from back to front over the back, the legs are still coming under and not going out behind. The horse is not dumped on the forehand, and quite capable of responding to half halts. Therefore the classical standards are never ignored in the horses training.

 

The quality of the horses certainly have improved along with how we feed and care for them, so ways to assist in training will also be developed. We see all sorts of new training aids coming out, new and different materials replacing the old standards, but any of them not use correctly can create problems or issues. Also today communications and enlightenment of public is so much greater so we can exchange things so quickly, which is good, but also may be part of what is lacking in understanding, because we all seem to gather different meanings.

 

Horses being ridden behind and not bending at poll, has been happening for years in many disciplines, using all sort of gadgets and training and just bad riding. Guess now Rollkur Training will now just become another topic and reason to blame and add. Don't know that changing the word to Hyper extension, will change how people understand it or train their horses.This is just one humble person opinion on the topic and art of rollkur training. It is always interesting to keep on learning.
-- J. Vogel

 

 

Oh my, oh my, oh my ...  This method has put the entire Section of Dressage in the Olympics at risk of being discontinued due to  CRUELTY ... training cruelty !!!
 
Please, please make sure people don't tie up their horses.  Read the book by Monty Roberts; his dad did the same type of training for "western" type of results, of course, because it was the accepted method.  But why would you EVER tie up your horse in restraints !!   Classical horsemanship is natural horsemanship; with complete understanding by the horse of the desires of the human so it can carry out our requests, willingly and in balance and happily.
 
Remember, the definition of dressage is
        returning the freedom to the horse while under a rider.
 
freedom !!!   partnership !!!   participation !!!

-- Kathleen Harjess

 

I see a lot of riders using that technique but on the other hand, I also hear of a lot of dressage people criticizing it.
 
IMHO rollkur would especially hurt a young horse, because that would increase tension along the jaw, neck and back. Also, hyperflexion does nothing to promote the use of the hindquarters, which is the area of the body that I especially want to teach the young horse to use.
 
--Name withheld

 

The current controversy about training methods and their influence on, the horse, makes clear that there is an urgent need for scientific evidence and information. The crucial question is whether the practice of forcing the horse to adopt an extremely deep and compact posture, called by some the "Rollkur" is acceptable. As in every highly specialized areas, experts differ. Some think that the "Rollkur" or "hyperflexion of the neck" endangers the welfare of the horse while others emphasize that the method improves the flexibility and tone of the horse's musculature, therefore enhancing the horse's strength and health. However, these opposing views are unsupported by independent scientific information and evidence.
 
I personally have several problems with this training method. One being any "hyperflexion" of any joint over a period of time will cause pain and tension with the ultimate result being physical impairment. This method used by inexperienced people will undoubtedly result in a threat to the welfare of the horse. Unfortunately --I have only seen this method abused by immature "trainers" and riders. The horse's neck is used for balance--to over flex and force a frame is not  taking into account the fundamentals of training--Rhythm, Relaxation, Contact ,Impulsion, Straightness and Collection. The method of force--trapping the stretch of the frame by over flexing the neck could not but hinder the natural flow of energy.  I have seen much of this "type" of training with disastrous results. Injuries to backs--hocks and necks and horses's with ruined temperaments.  In judging--the problem with over flexion and horses's avoiding the bit is becoming more of the norm then the rarity. I am not referring to "deep" because that is another issue that is often confused with the "Rollkur".  I do believe that time will show that "hyperflexion" of the neck does injure the horse and that it has no place in training of the classical Dressage horse.

 
 
-- Dede Bierbrauer
" R" Dressage Judge

Trainer and Instructor

 

I believe that the rollkur training method is beneficial for training horses to use themselves in a more complete manner, but like any training method must be taught correctly in order not to harm the horse. My perception is that a lot of the controversy is more about others having sour grapes over the success of certain riders like Anky. Just as we look outside of classical medicine (when was the last time you were "bled" at the doctors office), riders should use classical dressage as the foundation of riding & look to improve upon it. Classical doesn't equal perfect.
--Christine Betz

 


Rollkur, or hyperflexion and overbending of the neck is:  how to teach your horse to avoid the bit instead of accepting the bit.  It is a tool used by some trainers (not too many, I hope) to speed up through the levels because many judges reward  "behind the vertical" and the poll not being the highest point .   This is not how one gets the horse to "use his topline!"  Our dressage association, however reluctantly, did not do classical dressage any favors by condoning this method of training.  Aside from the potential welfare issue of this training method, we would do better to concentrate more on bending our horses through the rib cage and less in the nec
ks.
 -- Sue Doll
Windsong Arabians

 

Here are my thoughts on Rollkur....
This type of overly aggressive riding should be banned.  Yup, I'm from the Say No to Rollkur Clique.  It has also come to my attention that this seems to be a "European sensation".   It seems to be plaguing europe and thankfully has not made it to our continent with any great success. 


    I have watched quite a few videos of Anky riding several of her horses in this method, the horses looked strung-out, nervous and unbalanced.  And how could they not be?  While collection is the natural progression of proper dressage training it does not come from "reeling in" your horses head in with tension as rollkur does. Rollkur also has an adverse effect on the horses gutteral pouches which in turn puts pressure on the carotid artery, which proper collection does not.


     Riders use the excuse that certain aggressive stallions/horses NEED to be ridden like this, I have ridden MANY upper level, temperamental stallions and never had to 'dominate' them in this way. What happened to being a partner with your horse??   The freedom of expression and movement is lost when this technique is employed.  I think it is a severe detriment to our sport that upper level riders are allowed to use these techniques in the warmup ring.  I think in the long run though, America and Canada will benefit as the European riders who employ this style fall by the way side.  Those riders on this side of the pond who stick with traditional training techniques will continue to do well, and have happy horses who last a lifetime in the sport.  

-- Kimberley Beldam
True North Dressage
Frederick, MD



I think "rollkur" is a gimmick which came about when someone thought they could "improve upon" the tried and true principals of classical horsemanship.  The horse's head is not supposed to be behind the vertical.
--Linda Smith

 

This is not a training method, it's a disgrace.  Restraining horses in order to get something 'more natural' when unrestrained makes no sense to me.  Remember, the definition of dressage is returning the freedom to the horse while under a rider.  I don’t see how this possibly returns any freedom to a horse.  It is downright cruelty and abusive to the horse, who's little spirit is only is trying to do the best for us that they possibly can.  It is up to us to not abuse that gift.
-- Anne Ramires

 

It's not classical, but obviously effective for some riders and some horses. I would think that one would need to be very skilled before it could or should be attempted. The risk of damage is great in unskilled hands.
--Anne Ogletree


Anky Van Grunsven was attacked by the German press for overflexing, or riding deep, in training. Anky is Dutch, but she regularly beats the Germans.  This was the beginning of the recent rollkur controversy.

Top event riders and show jumpers have over flexed their horses for years, especially the really hot Thoroughbred types.  We all want to elasticize the muscles in our horse's back.  One way to both stretch and strengthen is to lower the poll, engage the hind legs, and allow the back to rise.  Most horses will respond by mentally engaging in their work and pushing even more from behind.  In some situations the horse will disengage behind and shift too much weight onto the forehand.  Some riders try the method by making the horse overflex to avoid harsh hands.  Then the horse goes behind the bit.  Riding deep correctly is with the horse on the bit and reaching under his body with his hind legs.  Both of the O'Connors have practiced and taught this for years.

Nobody wants to enter the dressage arena riding deep, and nobody wants to approach a jump that way, but most dressage, eventing, and jumper trainers sometimes ride a horse deep in training.

 

Anky has taken some incredibly athletic, and somewhat tense or hot horses and trained them to a level that nobody thought possible ten years ago.  Riding them deep some of the time is one of her tools.  It amazes me that this has become a controversy. Rather than criticizing the methods of the person who is beating us, we should try to learn whatever it is that she knows.
-- Steuart Pittman


The rollkur if used by the amateur rider can be promoting the horse to become behind the bit and thus learn to evade the bit and get heavy on the forehand.  If we are going to ride dressage we need to keep in mind the dressage pyramid. I would rather see a horse being properly ridden from the hind into a free forward gait with the head in front of the vertical. This allows the horse to come through and use their body correctly. We have a responsibility to the horse to allow them to develop correctly and not force them them into a false frame.
--Dina Mundy

 

I'm just a second level rider, so I don't feel comfortable with that method.  I don't like the idea that it can harm the horse (according to the study done by FEI).
--Linda Reinhardt


First a little "history lesson"...the Rollkur "Training Method"...  In my opinion doesn't even exist. It came first into the active dressage discussion boards shortly after Anky van Grunsven used it on Bonfire at a European show (can't remember which, but I think it was Aachen), to control him in the warm up, which was very small and crowded, according to GP riders who were there.  He was spooky and rank, and would have cleared the warm- up arena, had she not "put his head between his knees, to control his behavior....Notice she didn't ride him like that for a second after she went through the arches into the main arena. She won that Grand Prix, by the way...because he is trained to follow her hands....anywhere. Good thing, or she might have caused an injury to another or herself...and even Bonfire can't go into the arena cold.


My opinion is there is no such thing as the "Rollkur Training method" in Classical Dressage. What there is, which applies to this  discussion, is the horse following ones contact so that one can literally put the horses' neck anywhere one wants to, at any time, for the following reasons.... 1) To gymnastisize different muscle groups, 2) To develop  suppleness in the numerous places horses'  can  'get stuck" due to conformation, improper prior training,  injuries, and resistances, 3) and most importantly to keep the use of the hands an inviting and friendly place for the horse to go, on contact, without restriction....
      

What people have to understand , is that any and ALL dressage exercises can be overdone...even the simple circle can cause the horse major physical problems, just as riding in Rollkur can, to any excess. Doing  the "stretch circle" excessively is the lower level way to cripple your horse. None of these exercises were designed to be done over and over, just gently and intelligently incorporated into ones progressive training  session. They ALL have a reason and are incrementally gymnastisizing...and  'gymnastisizing' is the operative word here.


These horses that are competing at the FEI Levels are NOT dead quiet, behind the leg  blobs...they are like powder- keg, power-lifting athletes that are fit, forward and hot off the leg and sometimes, when the situation or the horse is explosive, and this fit creature is ready to blow up from the noise ,or the crowds, or the conditions, the rider must have some way to "warm them up",  under these adverse conditions.  The one minor advantage to using Rollkur is that by lowering the horses'  head , below the withers, the horse releases natural endorphins which  helps to calm them, which was obviously Ankys' purpose in using it.  
       

Rollkur is not the problem...how it's being "translated" and inappropriately used is.
 
-- Tracey Hurline,
Instructor and GP rider


Rollkur can be a very useful tool. The loosening and flexing of a horse's neck and body helps aid in better self-carriage. Like any training method it must be used by a capable trainer or rider who has control of their aids. It should also be used in moderation, in combination with long loose work and never for extended periods or for punishment. With that said, the importance should be put on the rider to be humane in all training and the goal should be a more obedient and softer horse.
-- Elizabeth Dalton 


I weigh in on the classical side of the argument - and against "rollkur".  The over-bent, "hyperflexion" method of training may work well for the Dutch, and in the hands of very competent trainers it may not be cruel to the horse, but it is not something that should be encouraged in dressage training. Unfortunately, as long as those who use that method of training keep winning in the show ring, it will unfortunately, gain popularity.
-- Rita Boehm

 

I've done some reading on this method and I can't help but think( in my opinion) that it borders on cruelty.  It looks so very uncomfortable and I think there are other methods to attain the goals other than putting your horse in such exaggerated and uncomfortable position.
-- Carol Morgan


I have read the FEI report and I think it is a method that may work for some very experienced trainers.  But in the hands of the average horseperson it is a gimmick that could cause physical problems with the horse and cause riders/trainers to use abusive training if the horse resists the hyperflexion.


It is not something I recommend for any of my students.  I myself have no experience with the method, and have no desire to try it.  The Training Scale provides all the necessary directives in order to achieve a horse that is happy, sound, and 'through'.
-- Carol Herron

Frederick, MD

There are many training methods and many types of horses. I personally like to be able in my daily training to stretch my horse through his entire topline. The outline of each horse can vary according to degree of training and each horse's confirmation. It takes experience to know what is correct for each horse. Some horses can benefit by going on occasion rather deep to help stretch the back muscles, like us reaching over an touching our toes. The rider must have much experience and great feel. Forcing extreme flexion can be uncomfortable for the horse. If a person was going to learn to do a split, they would take a period of time over a number of days to gradually increase their range of flexibility. It is the rider's responsibility to have good judgment and understand the limitations of movement. In some of the photos that I have seen of a horse hyperflexed they have seemed very stressed, with ears back, jaw opened and much emotional tension. If this is the case the rider is on the wrong track. Training needs to keep the best interest of the horse in mind above all else.
-- Mary Flood

 

I have never used the Rollkur training method and don't know of anyone who has.  From what I have read about it I believe it to be extreme and should only be used by those who are experienced with it.  I would not want this type of training to be used on any of my four horses.
-- Norma Schenning

 

From what I understand, it is a method best left to the pros.  If used with less skill, it can do damage to the horse and could be considered abusive.  I, personally, would not feel comfortable using this method on my horses as I am an adult amateur and lack the skill of a professional dressage rider.
-- Pat Mansfield


There are a number of well-known European trainers who have been highly successful in the tactful use of rollkur (or hyperflexion of the neck, as the FEI calls it).  Research has not demonstrated any physical harm from this technique, although behavioral psychologists feel that it promotes "learned helplessness" in the horse.  


I have not found that it is a necessary part of a training regimen, and I have seen imitations of the technique used very poorly and forcefully.  I do not promote it among my students, nor do I utilize this technique myself.  


Having the horse go "low and long" is a useful technique, and is different from rollkur in that the horse is allowed to find this position and not held there.  The reins are longer in long and low than in rollkur, and the position is not held for a long duration of time.  I do think that long and low is an important part of a horse's training.
-- Robin Brueckmann
" S" dressage, "R" eventing judge
USDF Gold Medal


It is the antithesis of one of the basic principals of classical dressage - relaxation.

 
-- Lori Garnant
Dundulk Sporthorses

 

This training system has been used for many years in Europe. Twenty years ago, top German trainers/riders (in all of the disciplines) were using this system to train horses. Just recently (the Dutch hot on the heels of the Germans for team Gold at the Olympics), an article appears in a German magazine, St. Georg, about the adverse aspects of rollkur training creating panic/uproar in dressage communities around the world, and putting pressure on the FEI committee to do something about it. Lest we forget, one of the top industries in Germany and Holland is the horse industry. I think the USA is being used as a pawn in this controversy, as the mentality to purchase horses from the country where the horses are winning, remains constant.
-- Sharon Bryant
Renaissance Farm, LLC
Sparks, MD


A few Equiery staffers have opinions on the rollkur issue, too.

Ever since Dutch rider Anky van Grunsven broke onto the international dressage show scene at the 1988 Olympics, it has been a well known fact that she warms up using ‘rollkur,’ also known as ‘the crank.’ In her biography Anky, she defends ‘the crank’ as a training method. I saw her warm up for the 2005 World Cup Final at Las Vegas, Nevada, and this is the only way she [warmed] up. She performed all of the Grand Prix movements – from walk to trot to canter – completely cranking the horse’s head in. She performed piaffe, passage, flying changes, walk and canter pirouettes and half-pass at the trot and canter in this manner. (Readers should note that the warm-up tent was not accessible to spectators.)


I personally think rollkur is cruel to the horse. But, as long as Anky wins at the highest levels, the implication is that we should all learn to do it. She has won medals at the last four Olympic summer games. Interestingly enough, I’ve never seen anyone else warm up with only rollkur, not even her top international student Edward Gal. Only recently has Anky been criticized in horse magazines, leading to a polarizing debate of classical versus modern training methods and even German versus Dutch training methods.However, rollkur is not something I would personally attempt on any horse for any equestrian discipline, as a likely result would be for your horse to object by rearing up and falling on top of you. I recall that Anky commented in an article that her horses usually try to dump her, and indeed, several years ago, one did and broke her femur. As a likely Dutch team member for the World Equestrian Games, it will be interesting to know if any members of the ground jury, besides the technical delegate, observe or comment on her warm-up ride.

– dressage columnist Beth Collier

It is a legitimate training method for those [who] know what they are doing. But as with most things, if done incorrectly, it defeats the purpose and can cause harm. I do not do it or recommend it be done as there are too many things to go wrong.
– Carolyn Del Grosso, staff membe
r

I have to agree with Walter Zettl that it is ridiculous! It is one thing to ask a young horse (or older!) to go long and low and learn to stretch his/her back muscles that way. But as they are becoming more collected, the whole front end elevates and the back rounds up under the rider. See his book Dressage in Harmony for a good illustration!


I’ve had the good fortune to train with Wendy Carlson, Kathy Thompson, Cheryl Ann Loane, and Walter Zettl and we employed the more classical methods with very good results.
– LuAnne Levens, staff member