Dressur Pervers (Rollkur, Hyperflexion)
- by Dr. Thomas Ritter
©2005 All Rights Reserved
Dressur pervers – perverted dressage – was the title of an article in Germany’s oldest and most respected dressage magazine, Sankt Georg, last summer, which sparked a debate about dressage practices that even made it into the German mainstream news media. The discussion focuses especially on the deep and overflexed training method that Anky van Grunsven and the Dutch team are using, but it is set within the wider
context of animal abuses that can be witnessed in the warmup rings of even the top dressage shows in Europe. For instance, some of the leading international riders had to be reprimanded by the ring stewards for treating their horses too roughly. Some horses that compete at the European and World Championships show unpredictable behavior from time to time that raises questions of whether these horses are simply bred very hot, or whether they may be pressured too much or trained too fast, so that their brains and bodies can’t keep up with the demands made of them. Newspapers report of children who tell their parents they no longer want to watch the horse show, because they don’t like the way the horses are being treated by their riders. There are even allegations that some European riders subjugate their horses with electric shocks, bungee cords, and by withholding water.
The more flagrant abuses in the warmup rings with reins, whips, and spurs are relatively easy to spot, and the FEI, as well as the various national organizations are clearly condemning any unethical, cruel, abusive, or harmful treatment of horses. But what about a training method, such as the “deep and overflexed” method, whose proponents not only claim that it is healthy for the horse, but who also win all the major competitions, European Championships, World Championships, and Olympic Games?
It is always difficult to argue with success, especially if the critics are other competitors, who didn’t win, because one could accuse the critics of being motivated by envy, rather than concern for the horse or the purity of the classical teachings.
However, if the criticism comes from undisputed authorities in the saddle who are no longer actively competing, such as Klaus Balkenhol and the late Egon von Neindorff, or if veterinarians start to weigh in against the deep and overflexed method, arguing that is detrimental for the horse’s health, these experts cannot be nearly as easily ignored as being jealous or “not knowing what they are talking about”.
The Sankt Georg article forced the debate about the “Rollkur” or “deep and overflexed” method from the internet discussion lists and chat rooms into the media spotlight, so that the German National Federation felt the need to release an official statement, in which it says: “Training methods with very pronounced ‘curling up’ and lateral ‘overflexion’ of the horse’s neck have repeatedly been propagated in the history of equestrian sport. The ‘Richtlinien für Reiten und Fahren’, that are binding nationally (in Germany), as well as the classical teachings and the relevant literature on which the Richtlinien are based, recognize that these practices are wrong. This method is currently again under intense discussion, internationally. Based on the insights of the Richtlinien für Reiten und Fahren, the German National Federation continues to hold that the excessive ‘curling up’ and lateral ‘overflexion’ of the horse’s neck is an erroneous method.”
Holger Schmezer, the coach of the German national team, calls himself a fundamentalist in a newspaper article. He says that the Richtlinien, the product of long practical experience, form the basis of his own work as well as of the many German successes. While he does not see a problem with bringing the horse’s head temporarily slightly behind the vertical, he categorically rejects the “deep and overflexed” method in which horses are ridden for extended periods of time with their mouth almost on their chest. However, he stops short of calling Anky van Grunsven’s training abusive.
Lately, an organized opposition to the Rollkur has arisen in the form of two associations that are headed by famous experts in the saddle. In 2000, Colonel Christian Carde, Jean d'Orgeix and Michel Henriquet created ALLEGE-IDEAL (www.allege-ideal.com) which is located in France, but has branches in several European countries, Canada and Australia, with the purpose of returning horsemanship to its roots. In their mission statement, they write: “Guided by the teachings of General L'Hotte, General Decarpentry, as well as contemporary experts in France and abroad who have and still promote horsemanship that incorporates respect of the horse and its development through lightness, ALLEGE-IDEAL will bring together those who believe that lightness is inseparable from any system of horsemanship, regardless of discipline, that emphasizes the following:
concern for the physical and mental well-being of the horse,
enjoyment of equestrian activities,
skill in riding that makes it possible to help a horse reach collection in the best possible way.”
In 2005, Hans-Heinrich Isenbart, Klaus Balkenhol and Ingrid Klimke founded a club called XENOPHON in Germany (click here) with a similar goal as ALLEGE-IDEAL. In a press release, the founding members of XENOPHON write that “riding is a school of humaneness. At least, this is the ideal of the classical teachings.” Hans-Heinrich Isenbart says in a flyer for the association: “Only those who respect horses as free, living partners and God’s creatures will experience the nobility of their character and finally their friendship.” The purpose of the group is the promotion of the classical teachings as well as the no holds barred exposure of the consequences of “certain current training methods that are being used in the training of young horses and in preparation for competitions”. The press release continues: “Those who ignore this ancient treasure chest of knowledge and experience, but who try instead to quickly reach dubious goals through tricks and technical gadgetry act irresponsibly against the horse’s health, against the ethical principles and against the international rules.”
“XENOPHON provides riders and trainers with the knowledge and a system that allows them to develop a young horse sparingly within his physical and psychological limitations.” The newly founded association has already attracted members in Germany, the USA, and Canada and is growing rapidly.
The reason why classical riders have been so resistant to adopt the “deep and overflexed” training method is that it goes against centuries of practical training experience. According to the Old Masters the position of the head and neck is not arbitrary or independent of the rest of the horse’s body. Rather, it is dictated by the posture of the horse’s pelvis and the entire spine, and this posture is directly linked to the horse’s state of balance. Any change in the balance, any change in the posture of the head and neck affects the movement of the back and hips, and any change in the posture of the pelvis and back affects the balance and the head and neck position.
The rider knows that he has found the right head and neck position when the impulses of the hind legs reach the bit, and when the rein aids reach all the joints of the hind legs. There are several factors that play a role here:
The connectivity of the vertebrae
The angle of the rein pressure to the horse’s jaw
The leverage effect of the neck on the back and hindquarters
In order to establish this transmission of energy, the rider has to align the horse’s spine so that all the vertebrae touch each other with a sufficiently large area of their joint surface. Gustav Steinbrecht, whose “Gymnasium des Pferdes” became the foundation for the latest versions of the German army riding manual (Heeresdienstvorschrift), for the FEI rule book, and for the Richtlinien für Reiten und Fahren explains (p. 85 of the English translation published by Xenophon) “As necessary as a flexible and agile neck is for the fully trained horse, it must be connected with perfect steadiness. This is so because for every bend and position of the neck, the joining surfaces of its vertebrae must remain sufficiently in contact to thus be able to transmit the driving as well as the restraining aids. If, however, the neck is bent too much at individual points so that the area of contact between the vertebrae in question becomes too small, a false bend appears at which the rein action from the hands as well as the driving aids are broken; to use the customary term, the aids are stuck in the incorrect bend.”
There are two rather frequent types of false bends, a longitudinal one and a lateral one. The most common longitudinal false bend occurs behind C3. It is caused when the rider forces the horse’s head down with the reins, and it is recognizable by the more or less pronounced point it produces in the top line of the neck. The neck no longer forms a continuous arc, but rather two almost straight lines that are connected with a pointy angle. The poll is then no longer the highest point, either.
A common lateral false bend occurs at the base of the neck, in front of the withers. It is the result of an overuse of the inside rein and a lack of support from the outside rein. It is easy to spot, because the neck clearly bends more than the rest of the horse’s body, and the horse leans onto his outside shoulder.
The Old Masters would argue that the deep and overflexed method is likely to create false bends through excessive lateral and/or longitudinal flexion, so that the impulses of the hind legs can no longer reach the bit, and the rider’s half halts can no longer reach the hind legs, all the way down to the fetlocks.
The false bend becomes an evasion for the horse, because he can basically hide his stiff, unflexed poll from the rider’s aids, simply by yielding with the wrong part of the neck. In other words, the poll remains stiff in spite of all flexing rein aids.
A correctly developed neck should be widest and most stable at its base, in front of the shoulder blade, and become more elastic and flexible towards the poll, similar to a tree branch that is strongest where it attaches to the trunk and becomes thinner and more flexible towards the tip.
The angle that is formed by the rein and the horse’s jaw influences the energy flow and thus the effectiveness of the half halts as well. The Old Masters discovered that the more this angle approaches 90 degrees, the more effective the rein aids become. The more it deviates from 90 degrees, either by raising or lowering the head and neck, the less effective the rein aids become, because they no longer go through. Friedrich von Krane (Die Dressur des Reitpferdes, 1856, p. 110) writes: “If too many neck vertebrae participate in the forward-downward flexion, so that the head stands in defect, the pressure will pass above the first back vertebra, and the half halt will get stuck in the neck, curling it up, as it were. An increased pressure of the bit would pull the horse’s chin all the way to his chest, without any transmission of the half halt to the back vertebrae.”
The third factor I mentioned above is the leverage effect of the horse’s head and neck on his back and hindquarters. Dupaty de Clam (La science et l’art de l’équitation, 1777) was the first author who described this lever effect, and the German authors of the 19th century, like Louis Seeger, E.F.Seidler, Friedrich von Krane, Gustav Steinbrecht, and others, built on his discoveries. These masters observed that elevating the horse’s head and neck creates an increased pressure on the back and hindquarters, while lowering the head and neck decreases the pressure. If the hind legs are stepping underneath the center of gravity enough, the elevation of the head and neck results in a flexion of the haunches and a lowering of the croup. If the hind legs are out behind, or if the elevation exceeds the ability of the hindquarters to flex, the horse will push his croup up and yield to the pressure by dropping his back, instead.
By lowering the horse’s head and neck, the rider can reduce the pressure on the hindquarters, which results in longer strides of the hind legs, reduced collection, and potentially a higher lifting of the back. Of course, if the hind legs fail to take longer strides, the horse simply falls onto the forehand, and the back and withers drop, while the croup pushes up, and the shoulder freedom is restricted.
Conversely, increasing the collection, i.e. the flexion of the haunches, including a lowering of the croup, raises the withers and elevates the horse’s head and neck, and it increases the shoulder freedom.
Colonel Hans von Heydebreck, one of the authors of the German army riding instruction, competitor, judge, and leading authority on dressage theory in the early 20th century summarizes this point (Die deutsche Dressurprüfung, 1928, 16f.): “The lowering of the croup and the elevation of the forehand are closely interrelated; for, on the one hand, the elevation is the result of the flexion of the haunches. On the other hand, it serves as the means to determine precisely the degree to which the hind legs are burdened. By shifting the neck vertebrae up and back, it enables the rider to use the bit and reins as leverage against the back and hindquarters. This requires that the elevation is combined with willing submission of the poll, because it is the only way in which the permeability necessary for the correct rein effects can be achieved.”
A logical consequence of these three main factors is that as the elevation of the head and neck increases, the longitudinal flexion of the neck and poll has to increase as well, in order to maintain an angle between rein and jaw that allows the rein aids to be transmitted properly, and the haunches have to flex more in their hip and hock joints, and the croup has to be lowered. The lower the head and neck are carried, the more stretched out the neck has to be, i.e. the longitudinal flexion is smaller, in order to maintain the right rein-jaw angle and a sufficient connectivity between the individual vertebrae. The collection is lower, the hip and hock joints are less flexed, and the croup is not lowered.
The Old Masters would argue that the deep and overflexed method with its excessive curling up of the neck puts the horse onto the forehand, not allowing the rider to confirm the horse in the direction of the haunches, since a true flexion of the haunches is only possible with an increased elevation. A deep head and neck position is incompatible with flexed haunches, and flexed haunches are synonymous with collection.
These very brief descriptions demonstrate that the deep and overflexed training method violates several classical principles. Its extreme lateral flexions can easily disconnect the neck from the rest of the horse’s body, which creates an energy leak, similar to a hole in a garden hose through which the water escapes. Its extreme longitudinal flexion can create an additional false bend in which the rein aids get stuck, and it does not permit the rein aids to meet the horse’s jaw at the right angle. The extremely low position of the ensemble of the head and neck restricts the horse’s shoulder freedom and does not permit the rider to bend the joints of the hindquarters by borrowing weight from the horse’s head and neck and transferring it to the haunches. Collection in the classical sense is therefore difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.