Wednesday, January 23, 2008

All the rage about rollkur

Disclaimer: I never thought I'd write about rollkur. But I'm coming down with a cold, and it's 12 degrees outside, and I'm a little cranky. Anyhoo, what's an Internet blog without a little ranting?

Whenever I see the topic "rollkur" on one of the horse bulletin boards I pointedly ignore the thread. I've read enough and watched enough videos to get the gist, and the subject always invites lengthy, heated debate. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the controversy, it’s basically a training method that forces the horse to flex his neck into a rather extreme position. For more info, google rollkur, or take a look at some videos like these: Die Rollkur [in German] and Will we ever be in harmony?. Each of the videos is a real piece of work. The musical score for Die Rollkur is Christina Aguilera’s Hurt, and another rock songstress provides the musical backdrop for Will we ever... Both show a video collage of horses in slow motion, mouths gaping and foam-covered. Along with the mournful crooning, words float across the screen: "it's called's also called animal abuse." Pretty melodramatic stuff. And I have a really awful feeling these videos were produced by someone over the age of 14.

Classical vs. competitive dressage
Classical principles of dressage are described in the writings of Xenophon and practiced in Vienna's renowned Spanish Riding School (pictured right). These training principles emphasize kindness and reward. A casual observer could see that Rollkur is not a horse-friendly technique. It shouldn't make the horse perform better, but riders who use the technique are winning in the show ring. At the international level. A lot. And the classical purists are really upset about that.

Maybe Jerry Springer could mediate...
Debates over rollkur get pretty incendiary, and its detractors throw charge that it's cruel, abusive, and inhumane. The rollkur practitioners, many of whom are at the top of the sport (e.g., Anky, pictured left), are vilified. I'm not an apologist for hyperflexion -- it's the "blunt instrument" the trainer's toolbox, like draw reins. But does hyperflexion merit the kind of emotional appeal we see in the videos? If we think of a continuum of cruelty, where does it fall? Grand prix horses are powerful, healthy, athletic animals, fully capable of dumping their riders. Whatever they may endure for the hour or so they're ridden, the other 23 hours they have a pretty good life. Horses whose value is in the six digits tend not to be neglected. For the folks who are in a lather about the handful of expensive horses who are subjected to rollkur, here is my advice. Take some of that energy, pathos, and righteous indignation and direct it toward a real animal welfare issue. Go help some horses that are thin, neglected, injured, and teetering on the edge of homelessness.

Has no one here read Black Beauty???
Good horses can fall on hard times, as we learned from reading Anna Sewell's novel. The truly desperate horse rescue cases are too disturbing to share. Instead, take a look at thoroughbred rescue and adoption, a cause I personally support. I pulled one picture from a thoroughbred rescue site, shown on the right -- the BEFORE picture. Not all are in this sad condition -- in fact here are some nice prospects on the CANTER and Rerun sites. But most have baggage from racing, and more than a few are broken down, used-up, and being sold because they're "not earning their keep any more." In the sales ads, owners extoll their virtues of the horse that they trained and raced--horses with a "great work ethic", "sweet personality" and "big heart." Yep, and look where it got them. Ex-racers can have injuries that limit their future as a riding horse or to be much of anything. Even sound ex-racers can have vices and socialization problems. Some look in pretty good shape, a few are unkempt and alarmingly thin.

Where does rollkur fit in all of this? In the big picture of animial cruelty, competitive dressage horses are in pretty good shape. There are thousands of horses suffering from neglect, starvation, and and health problems. Let's do something about that.


  1. I completely agree with you, I compete in AQHA Breed Circuit, and often find the same attitudes toward quarter horse training that people express towards Rollkur. I applaud your bravery and I completely understand what you are trying to point out. Good Luck.

  2. I think what worries a lot of people is that the "backyard" dressage rider will go home after seeing those big expensive horses win and try RK on their own, with their own horse, without knowing what the heck they are doing. Those are the horses we really have to worry about, not Anky's stable of pampered super-stars. Those are the horses that are going to be abused, hurt and dumped (because they are "no good" or ruined) ending up like that poor little thing you have pictured.

  3. Do you know what farm the "before" pic of the TB was taken at? I'm just wondering, it looks exactly like a rescue that I know of who was just forced to move to a new farm... the owner is so nice and they have a great heart.

  4. Hi,

    It's from
    and you get to see the nice "after" picture. Do you know the horse?

  5. I, like you, try not to get too involved in the rollkur debate. All I know for usre is that I don't do it to my horse, and I won't allow anyone else to either. And trainers that do damaging things to their horses, rollkur or otherwise, will find horses who can't achieve their full potiential because of emotional or physical problems. Sure they might win some but think of what they could have done with different methods.

  6. Just because there is a worse form of treatment out there doesn't mean that the lesser form is acceptable. Certain techniques used in so-called horsemanship are the reason that many of the horses you mention (rescues) end up the way they do: neglected, abused, skinny and on the verge of death.

    It does connect, and it is a major consideration.

  7. I know this is way past the time of your original post... but I felt motivated to comment and perhaps shed another light on your stated arguments:
    The outcry regarding the top riders in competitive dressage winning despite the training techniques they use isn't sour apples about people being rewarded for having found a 'successful' shortcut, but rather the fact that the training produces a parody of movement that is nothing at all to do with the true intentions and training of the horse for his gymnastic, physical and mental well being.
    Indeed these changes are so profound that the FEI actually changed their judging and marking rules and regulations to suit the competitors, rather than making the competitors comply with what has been proven, tried and tested for centuries!
    The sad thing is it's getting to the point where there are no judges on the current circuit willing to speak out, and some of the younger ones I suspect of not actually being able to tell good movement from bad, since the marking is going with the flashy rather than the true and fewer people seem able to spot the tell tale signs.
    As for claiming that rollkur isn't abusive as it is only directed at 'pampered superstar' horses. It is not. The horses that can survive the mental and physical abuse of rollkur training methods are the ones that make it to this rarified 'superstar' status. Did you know that the average age for dressage warmblood breeds has fallen dramatically in the last two decades? Do you want to hazard a guess at what the average age is? It's under 9 years of age! Seriously. The main reason being the numbers that are destroyed at a young age from the hot-housing techniques of the modern dressage competition world. Some snap physically, others mentally, to the point where they are too dangerous to be kept. That is criminal, it is abusive and it is a disgraceful waste of life.
    It is a phenomenon that is happening because it is being sanctioned at the very highest level of the competitive industry. Money means more than the life and spirit and wellbeing of these animals - many of which never get the opportunity to realise the talent they are born with because they show so much promise at such a young age.
    Another thing, you seen to state that it's 'ok' since it's only one hour out of every 24 that the otherwise 'pampered' horse is exposed to this cruelty!?! How can that be justified? If I beat a dog only one hour out of 24, am I ok because the rest of the time I feed it prime steak and tell him I love him lots if only he'd stop making me beat him? Unfortunately that is the logical conclusion of your hypothesis.
    Rollkur (LDR or whatever label they want to give it) is a much more subtle and difficult to spot form of abuse than neglect, starvation, beatings etc. that doesn't make it less cruel or less horrific. Indeed the very fact that it is a form of abuse where the perpetrators are 'protected' by the powers that be make it something to stand up and shout about.
    No-one is asking that rollkur be made a higher priority fight than that against other forms of abuse - but as rollkur is something that could easily be stamped out and policed. Remove the reward of winning both cash and prestige to those who train in this method. Simply by marking the true dressage as presented before the judge will help this dramatically. Allow stewards and judges to mark warm-up behaviour before major competition... it isn’t rocket science! This is something that people should educate themselves upon and stand-up against if they feel it is right to do so.
    Anyone in doubt, I recommend you read sustainable dressage - just google it and you'll find the pages. A well written, detailed account of horse biomechanics and a full explanation of just why the theory of rollkur is so wrong as to be laughable. If only a sensitive creature weren't on the receiving end.

  8. Are you suggesting that Rollkur has shortened the lifespan of warmbloods across the entire population? Do you think there might be other reasons for the decrease in the avg age (such as a dramatic increase in the breeding/popularity of warmbloods leading to a lot of young horses on the market?). Or breeding for certain traits and ignoring others such as long term soundless? Does it matter that a lot of warmbloods are used for driving, jumping, and other sports? The kind of stress rollkur produces is likely to produce a sour riding horse, but it won't likely cause a shortened lifespan. Where are the data to support this statement? Name one dressage horse who has succombed to rollkur and where are the reports on it? Starvation, yes, beating, yes (if it damages tissue enuf that major organs are compromised), overcrowding, yes, disease, yes, but not freakin ROLLKUR.

    I'm no fan of rollkur but it ain't killin' horses. Sorry but that's crazy talk, and it's an example of the whackiness of the arguments made.

    1. That rollkur has crippled some horses with the pain from their necks being forced to a very tight restraining angle ! No horse would hold it's head in such a tightly squeezed position , but that piece of junk called a rollkur forces the horses neck to do that ! It's a cruel abusive piece of equipment and should never ever be used on any horse ! IT SHOULD BE BANNED AND ALL OF THEM BE DESTROYED , SO NO HORSE HAS TO SUFFER THAT VILE PAINFUL THING AGAIN !

  9. Your argument is a logical fallacy. People can be concerned about many areas of animal abuse not just focus on the one you personally have deemed 'the worst' or 'more important'.
    For those concerned about Rollkur, playing a part in raising awareness of this cruel practice is just as important as rescuing ex-racehorses.
    To follow your argument to it's logical conclusion, one would need to find the worst off, most abused horse ever, and fix that before moving on to the next most abused horse and so on. The fact that such a delineation would only be based on subjective values further shows the flaws in your argument.
    Perhaps instead of caring about abused horses you might want to care about starving children? Or women raped in war-zones around the world? Or how about malaria? Or women who suffer sprains due to the inhumane practice of wearing high-heeled shoes? Or even animals raised in factory farms?
    Rollkur is bad, abusing animals is bad. The end. There is room in the world for all sorts of activism to prevent animal cruelty.

  10. Abuse is abuse... no need to call it "acceptable" just because there's no blood present. If we can't train an animal without inflicting pain, we have no business touching the animal. Period.

    And I've seen enough of what's winning in the AQHA circuit to turn my stomach, so it's not just dressage.

  11. I think rollkur sould not be allowed. It is mean and why make a horse uncomfortable. You would not like it if someone did that to you. They feel pain and have feelings just the same as we do.

  12. I agree with Deborah and Samantha. I disagree with FEI turning a blind eye to their own rules in order to please gold medal winners.
    As for saying the international horse is pampered 23 out of 24 hours a day...this is no excuse for justification.
    Compare this: Spouse beaters give flowers, gifts and romance between beatings...but assault is still against the law.

  13. The before picture looks more like a saddlebred, with a long back, flat croup and post legs, than a TB.

    Anyway, short cut training methods are unacceptable no matter the discipline. Comparing training methods with the throw-away attitude we have towards animals and out and out abuse is not really an argument.


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