Sunday, February 14, 2010

Don't try this at home

In October last year the dressage world was shocked by images of an international rider warming up his horse at a FEI World Cup competition. The horses head was rolled down to its chest, its mouth was open trying to avoid the force of the double bridle and its tongue was hanging out. And the tongue was blue. If Rollkur had been a controversy subject before, this footage (aptly named Blue Tongue Video) and the effective use of the internet soon brought Rollkur into everyone’s living room. An international movement against such horse abuse gathered enormous momentum which resulted in the FEI having to finally address the issue of Rollkur. Here is the essential part of the press release that was circulated after their meeting this past week.


Following constructive debate at the FEI round-table conference at the IOC Headquarters in Lausanne today (9 February), the consensus of the group was that any head and neck position achieved through aggressive force is not acceptable. The group redefined hyperflexion/Rollkur as flexion of the horse’s neck achieved through aggressive force, which is therefore unacceptable. The technique known as Low, Deep and Round (LDR), which achieves flexion without undue force, is acceptable.

The group unanimously agreed that any form of aggressive riding must be sanctioned. The FEI will establish a working group, headed by Dressage Committee Chair Frank Kemperman, to expand the current guidelines for stewards to facilitate the implementation of this policy. The group agreed that no changes are required to the current FEI Rules.

The FEI Management is currently studying a range of additional measures, including the use of closed circuit television for warm-up arenas at selected shows.

The group also emphasised that the main responsibility for the welfare of the horse rests with the rider.

The FEI President HRH Princess Haya accepted a petition of 41,000 signatories against Rollkur presented by Dr Gerd Heuschman.

The title of the press release certainly promises closure to this embarrassing chapter. Rollkur is now banned – isn’t this what all of us 41,000 people who signed the petition wanted? But did we really get what we were looking for?

I’m glad to read that the group unanimously agreed that any form of aggressive riding must be sanctioned. Of course, I thought that was a given, but apparently it took an international uproar to make the FEI clarify this point. I do, however, think that it is vital to define words such as aggressive and force, as they are subject to interpretation. As usual, I consulted my Webster and my Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English for clear definitions.


1. Behaving in an angry, threatening way, as if you want to fight or attack someone.
2. Someone who is aggressive is very determined to succeed or get what they want.


1. Strength, energy, power
2. The intensity of power
3. Physical power or strength exerted against a person or thing/the use of physical power to overcome or restrain a person

I’m sure everyone who reads these definitions has a somewhat clear picture in their own mind what these words mean and how they apply to riding horses. Unfortunately those definitions are individual, not universally agreed upon. Consensus may be easy and obvious in a situation when someone repeatedly whips their horse in warm up, but what about when the aggression and force used are more subtle? It’s hard for me to imagine anyone achieving a low, deep and round outline without any force, but an FEI Steward watching the world’s top riders warming up before the World Equestrian Games finals will have to be absolutely sure of himself and of what he defines as abuse before he opens his mouth in front of the international crowd to disqualify a rider.

Because let’s face it, who is going to make the distinction between Rollkur and LDR? And what IS the difference? Frankly, it simply looks like the FEI is unwilling to ban a training method widely used by their top riders, so they decided to change the name of it and make it legal. So what used to be called Rollkur is now called Low, Deep and Round (LDR). Only when it looks ugly enough to cause people to sign a petition, is it called Rollkur.

How convenient.

The FEI rules, however, weren’t changed. Which seems strange, as the rules state that the horse’s head " ... should remain in a steady position, as a rule slightly in front of the vertical ... " This is somewhat confusing, since it is a long way from the front of the vertical to between the knees where the LDR happens.

I’m not a vet, but even just common sense tells me that when a horse is rolled low, deep and round, it will be very difficult for the horse to breathe as the position puts the airways under considerable strain. I've certainly read enough articles and statements made by vets which support this view.  Not to mention what such a position of forced submission does to the animal emotionally. This is definitely not a position any horse would chose when moving in freedom.

Sure, the FEI can argue that in the “qualified” hands of the professional top riders the LDR method is not forceful and when used just short periods of time it doesn’t cause significant harm to the horse. However, by making this method acceptable, the FEI is sending a message that the method is safe and harmless to the horse. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of dressage riders all over the world, regardless of skill level, are going to see their idols using this method and will try to use it themselves. So, by allowing such riding to enter the international warm up arenas, the FEI is endorsing a method that is potentially very harmful to horses. Or is this one of those things you shouldn’t try at home?

I’m clearly not on the side of modern dressage and simply because I no longer believe the methods to be ethical. I’m not saying they were necessarily ethical before, I was just not as aware of what was happening, as I am now. And once your eyes have been opened, becoming unaware is no longer an option. I know there are others, just like me, who are starting to question the integrity of the competitive equestrian world. And we should continue to question it.

I think that the issue on Rollkur is just the tip of the iceberg, the beginning of something much more vast and profound. There is a growing movement, a movement based on humanity and kindness, a movement that is on the horse’s side. It may not be a large movement as of date, but it is getting bigger as we speak; people are finding each other and organizing themselves.

So, if you agree with even half of what I have said, you are not alone. We need to not only listen to our horses, but continue to speak up for them as well, so that the people who can’t hear them will one day come to their senses. It is so easy to treat horses badly, but like Carolyn Resnick said in an interview for the movie the Path of the Horse: “We must ask ourselves: Even if we can, should we?”


How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. ~Anne Frank

To learn more about the effects of Rollkur  go to
or  click on Articles and read "Why is 'Rollkur' wrong?"

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