Dedicated to the Horse
By Paul Kathen © 2006
In an ideal world, “Dedication to the horse,” would be the motto of every individual or organization involved with horses. That is how it should be. In my opinion, the world’s foremost international organization of horsemen just proved that it is not dedicated to the horse. The FEI Veterinary and Dressage Committee issued a report on January 31, 2006, regarding the “Rollkur” as a training tool for dressage horses. You can find this report on the internet by going to http://www.horsesport.org/D/d_05_04.html, and click on Report on the FEI Veterinary and Dressage Committee’s Workshop. If you have a computer handy, please pull it up and read along with me to see how the FEI managed to shirk its responsibility to act in favor of the horse’s welfare.
It is truly not in the best interest of my own well being to write about this report either because every time I think about it I become upset again. Let us begin with the Executive Summary where the whitewash for this highly questionable training technique known as, “Rollkur,” starts. In my opinion, considering it a “training technique” already gives it a connotation it does not deserve. I fail to see any benefit in it that cannot be achieved by other more humane means. Just look at the performances of many of the great horses of the last half century. These horses not only performed just as well and much more correctly as today’s equine athletes but they were not nervous wrecks unwilling to halt or unable to walk.
The term, “Rollkur,” has by now received a well deserved negative distinction. It is a German word that is very descriptive of what is happening to the horse that suffers such treatment. The “Roll Treatment” is the literal translation of that term. The term actually did describe a medical treatment for a stomach ailment where the patient had to drink a medicine and then was rolled from his back to his side to his front and farther to the other side and back to his original position on his back. This was to ensure that the medication would be spread over all sides of the stomach. That describes the origin of the term but not the intent of the person who first called this treatment of a horse, the “Rollkur.” That person described the appearance of the horse’s neck. It is rolled up.
There are, of course, different ways in which an ill can be treated. You can stitch up a cut on your finger, bandage it to keep the wound clean, and give it time to heal, or you can amputate that part of the finger. Either way the cut is cured. Take my word for it that the Germans meant amputation when they labeled this treatment of the horse, “Rollkur.”
The committee decided that a more “suitable form of words must be found.” They agreed on, “Hyperflexion.” I shall now quote point three of the Executive Summary. “Hyperflexion of the neck is a technique of working/training to provide a degree of longitudinal flexion of the mid-region of the neck that cannot be self-maintained by the horse for a prolonged time without welfare implications. There must be an understanding that Hyperflexion as a training aid must be used correctly, as the technique can be an abuse when attempted by an inexperienced/unskilled rider/trainer.”
This would mean that treating a cut in the finger by amputation is fine as long as it is done by a surgeon, and then we will call it a “shortening of the finger.” That sounds so much nicer. It also allows us to feel better for having acted decisively about all these short fingers that have been showing up lately and are giving our medical profession a bad name.
In point four, the whitewash continues as it states that they did not ignore all the delegates who questioned the technique but will address their concerns by further refining the wording. Most of us questioning this method of training really do not care what it is called but rather what it does to the horse.
As point five allows, there was one aspect that all did agree on. “Nobody must see a rider/trainer putting a horse under pressure by this or any other training techniques.” Have they ever watched this technique in action? Only pressure will cause a horse to roll up his neck like that and work at the same time! This statement seems to further implicate that it is acceptable to them to mistreat a horse as long as nobody sees it. I consider it hypocritical to state at the same time, as they did in point five, that the welfare of the horse must remain paramount.
Point six once more repeated that only in experienced hands will there be no apparent abuse or clinical side effects from such training. Well, I have seen enough of the best experts of this technique at work and looked at a great number of pictures showing them warming up their horses in the Rollkur to recognize a taught curb rein pulled by a rider who appears to be standing in the stirrups for enough leverage. They cause me to question what skill a rider must have not to create pain by such force on the horse’s jaw. If we could only interview horses I am confident they would tell us that they were unable to tell the difference whether that pull came from an experienced rider or an inexperienced one. That it has affected the horse’s performance is no longer in question. Just look at the movement of the medium and extended trot and you will see that the hind legs no longer keep up with the exaggerated movements of the front legs. They are clearly dragging behind. This is one distinction we share with our fellow horsemen that train Tennessee Walkers. They also have altered the way the horse moves. Their goal is their personal convenience. Our goal, it seems, is showiness. Either way is not natural for the horse. The trainers of Tennessee Walkers do not claim that their aim is to stay within the limits of Mother Nature. We do.
There was a light moment when I read the Executive Summary to my veterinarian. He and his assistant broke out in laughter and shouted, “DQP,” when I reached point seven that states that, “A Steward can be briefed to take action and prevent abuse of the technique.” When I asked what, “DQP,” stands for, they informed me that it is the, “Designated Qualified Person,” the Tennessee Walker shows employ to prevent abuse in their shows. I understand that some dressage trainers weight the shoes used in training so that the movement becomes more exaggerated when regular shoes are used in the performances. Even bungee cords are being used to lift up the front legs during training. I have to apologize to the trainers of the more “exotic breeds” for my negative attitude towards them because I found some of their techniques inhumane. Some of my dressage colleagues seem to follow them in lock step.
Point eight states, “The Veterinary Committee should now identify what research is required to confirm unequivocally whether or not there is a welfare issue involved in training techniques using Hyperflexion.” Either it was a very bad day for the veterinarians testifying before that committee or the minds were already made up that nothing would be done to protect our horses from obvious mistreatment in their training. We here in America fortunately do not see much of this training technique but if the “O” judges continue to overlook the obvious tension in the horses before them, and as this workshop proves, the FEI is not interested to intervene on behalf of the horse, dressage is going to continue the slide down the path of convenience to the trainers and showiness for the spectators. We will just carry on removing the exercises from the tests that demonstrate to the informed observer the incorrectness of the training. I believe efforts are already on the way to eliminate the halt from the test, as well as to reduce the walk.
The Germans and the Dutch are clearly leading in our sport. American riders have proven to be third in the world. Naturally, we want to occupy the first spot in the ranking. My concern is the price our horses would have to pay to accomplish that goal given this kind of attitude by the FEI. I am probably going a bit far out on a limb but it is worth a thought. The leading countries are also leading in the lowest average slaughter age of their horses. Excepted are those countries where horses are slaughtered for human consumption. At this point in Germany the age is somewhere around nine years. Another interesting thought along that line is that the average age of the riders at the highest level has been lowered considerably. The speed of training in horse and rider has increased dramatically and it seems that again the horse is paying the price.
Next in this report followed a number of summaries of expert opinions on various subjects related to the Rollkur and its effect on the horse. This means that you are now reading summaries of summaries. Much of what was said will be lost in this process. I am also not sure whether all speakers at the workshop were considered in the summaries. This is also a good time for me to confess my prejudice and as most of you may already have noticed, I did not approach this subject with an open mind. My mind was made up to the point that it would have taken total agreement by all the experts and proof that no harm is done to the horse by this method of training. I just wish everybody would take the time to read the entire report and listen to what was said by the experts and I think all would come away with the same conclusion that I did. Most speakers were very much concerned about negative effects of the Rollkur on the body and mind of the horse.
Dr. Andrew Higgins, Chairman of the FEI Welfare Sub-committee, stated the FEI code of conduct, which requires those involved in the international equestrian sport to ensure that at all times the welfare of the horse remains paramount and prohibits any training methods which are abusive or cause fear or for which the horse has not been properly trained. To me, paramount means, “above all else.” Dr.Higgins then cites the lack of evidence that the technique causes lasting damage to a horse. My question to Dr. Higgins is, “Where, in your opinion, does abuse start? Must scars be permanent before they are painful?”
Dr. Andrew McLean introduced a new term, “learned helplessness,” to me. He described it as learned pain tolerance. A horse whose nose has been forced onto its chest cannot escape that position and may learn to accept the pain involved with it. He wants to know how much contact is neutral, how to measure pain in the contact, and how learned helplessness manifests itself in a horse.
Dr. Gerd Heuschmann touched on the purpose for this style of riding. He believes it is the “wow” factor that seems to be rewarded more by some, including judges, than correctness of basic gaits. He believes that the aggressive component in the Rollkur creates tension which is the enemy of positive training.
Professor Frank Ödberg, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Ghent University, Belgium, talked about more “lightness” in training as well as in competition.
The French Professor, Jean-Marie Denoix, described the clinical manifestation of neck pain and pointed out that a rider was often totally unaware of any injury to the horse.
There is a project on the way in which scientists are trying to evaluate the influence of the horse’s head and neck position on the movement of the horse. Professor P. R. van Weeren spoke on behalf of a group of researchers involved in this project. The interpretation of the data so far seemed to indicate that while the rolled up neck did have a negative effect on the stride, it did seem to increase the motion of the back. That would indicate that such training might have value in training, depending on by whom and how it was applied. No comment on the question of the day, “Is it abusive?”
Professor Eric van Breda, Mastricht University, The Netherlands, cited a study in which an elite horse ridden in the Rollkur manor and a recreational horse not ridden in that way were compared in their post training stress. The elite horse showed less stress, therefore, this over-bending did not create stress or pose a serious threat to the well-being of horses in skilled hands. So, you give a couch potato and a trained athlete a workout in which you handicap the athlete and then see how quickly their heart rates return to normal. The athlete’s heart rate returns to normal quicker and you see this as proof that the handicap was not really a burden on the athlete?
Professor Hilary Clayton, McPhail Equine Performance Center, Michigan State University, USA, was the first one to introduce the question of the effect of the Rollkur on the airways. This was the first question my veterinarian stated after I described the head and neck position of the Rollkur.
After reading and re-reading all these opinions of the experts I came away with the feeling that the strongest statements were made between the lines. Most seemed to say, “Yes it is cruel but I cannot prove it. Many of you here are very successful riders and trainers so who am I to question your training methods? I also do not want to hurt your feelings so as long as it is only you, the experts, who train that way, it is okay with me. Why don’t we research some more just to make sure it really does not cause any lasting damage.”
To me there were two positive points that came out of this day. They were points put up for discussion during the general debate. “It is a fact that most “Rollkur” trained horses have severe irregularities in their natural gaits and some show obvious mental problems.” Also, “How can a Steward know what level of hyperflexion is acceptable?” There is a real danger of confrontation if a Steward attempts to reprimand a top professional rider who probably knows considerably more about the training technique than the Steward.
Then read the conclusions from the workshop and you must realize that it all was a waste of time. The general public is upset about what it sees at the shows and many trainers and riders know that the welfare of the horse is not considered in many training sessions. The FEI now has done something to address the obvious problem, namely nothing. Well, actually it did something. It issued a press release in which it announced no substantive action. You are the horse, what are you supposed to do? I suggest ignore the pain of the bit for one second, free yourself of that position and set her in the dirt. Believe me, an end with pain is better than a pain without end.