Rollkur: Training… or Torture?
About the head of a truly great horse there is an air of freedom unconquerable. The eyes seem to look on heights beyond our gaze. It is the look of a spirit that can soar.
~John Taunter Foote
Rollkur. You see it everywhere. Among dressage, jumper, hunter, and even western pleasure trainers, this particular method has become the mainstay of many riders today. But what is it, what it is intended to do, does it work, and is it ethical?
Rollkur has just been redefined by the FEI as “hyperflexion of the neck.” It involves a combination of extreme longitudinal and lateral flexions of the neck with a pronounced break behind the poll. At times the nose will touch the chest or shoulder. Proponents of this method claim that rollkur stretches the topline, lifts the back and supples the horse, and therefore is a desirable technique for developing the equine athlete.
These proponents do not, however, distinguish between “good” and “bad” stretching. After all, a torn ligament or dislocated joint is “stretching” that has gone too far; the medieval torture device known as “the rack” was also designed to induce stretching…. Not all stretching is beneficial to the horse.
Neither have they demonstrated that the back is properly lifted during rollkur. Though an arbitrary rising in parts of the spine may occur, it is not of the kind sought by classical methods, where the lifting and swinging of the back allows the horse to track more deeply under his center of gravity. Rather, with rollkur, the opposite effect is achieved: the extreme rounding of the neck when contorted in rollkur actually causes a bracing of the muscles along the back which prevents the horse, among other things, from achieving the proper bascule, without which the hind limbs are not able to step forward and fully engage beneath the horse’s body. This results in a hollow posture of the back, camouflaged by the exaggerated curvature happening in front of the shoulder. What’s more, this unnatural posture cannot be maintained by the horse on his own without the aid of external forces, further demonstrating the mechanical incompatibility with the horse’s anatomy. (Note: many authors have treated this subject in depth and with great clarity, and I recommend reading more in the links supplied at the end of this article.)
They also fail to distinguish between “good” and “bad” suppleness as they fail to answer the basic question: is the suppleness gained through natural relaxation, elasticity and freedom of movement equal to “suppleness” brought about by fear, pain and muscle fatigue?
I would argue that what is occurring here is not suppling at all. It is the deliberate and systematic degradation of the physical and psychological integrity of the subject designed to break resistance and gain compliance: i.e., it is torture. And, as far as I’m concerned, these people aren’t trainers, they’re criminals.
“Stress positions” are designed to “soften-up” prisoners prior to interrogation. Here, prisoners are being forced to artificially lower their heads and adopt unnatural positions of their spines, similar to horses in rollkur. We’ve all seen the images and unless you believe that these interrogators were just offering prisoners the opportunity to “limber up” before being interrogated, these images clearly demonstrate that stress positions, particularly artificial positions of the spine like those induced by rollkur, which target and strain large muscle groups as well as tendons, ligaments and joints, are methods of breaking a being’s will through physical and psychological pain, exhaustion and forced submission. Neither the psychology nor physiology of horse or human is designed to withstand this kind of stress, nor is it capable over sustained or repeated episodes. This is not a form of benign calisthenics or yoga; this is torture, plain and simple.
We need only look at the staggering numbers of horses exhibiting not only physical wear/lameness due to misuse, but also signs of psychological stress and anxiety, with rampant ulcers and stall-vices like cribbing, chewing, weaving, stall-walking etc.. Considering this, one might recall videos of human prisoners under similar circumstances which show them repeatedly bashing their heads against walls in an attempt to induce unconscious or even death to stop the excruciating pain of these stress positions. Add to that our preference to keep valuable show horses in extreme isolation, also known as solitary confinement, for 23 hours a day (only coming out for daily “training” sessions) and you have a recipe for extreme violations of ethics and humane standards of treatment.
The unfortunate term “breaking” is not incidental. It has been handed down to us over the centuries of horse and human relationships as a description of the perceived goals of horse training. The young horse was not to be “started under saddle,” “gentled” or “backed”: it was to be broken. And given the disproportionate strength and size of the two, many humans saw the horse as little more than an adversary to be defeated, believing the only way to achieve the cooperation of equines was through a brutal combination of force and fear.
Some believed - and, sadly, many still do - that the horse is a naturally recalcitrant beast which needs to be stripped of all of its will in order to be made suitable for human purposes and make it submissive to the human’s every demand. In the world of torture, this is euphemistically referred to as “re-education.” Essentially, it is a form of brainwashing; through fear, pain, disorientation, fatigue, etc., the subject learns that all attempts to help itself are futile, and so it becomes passive, docile and resigned:
“The “Rollkur” enables the rider to have maximum control; the horse learns that it has no chance to resist or to escape, its field of vision is limited, it cannot use its neck to balance. In behavioural science this is called “Learned Helplessness” – in German ‘Angelernte Hilflosigkeit’”
Fans of this method point to the number of winning competitors who employ it as evidence that it works; therefore, they conclude, the ends must justify the means. Unfortunately, this is a chicken and egg argument. Do they win because rollkur produces correct results, or do they win because judges who favor rollkur think the results are correct? Without a statement of philosophical and ethical consensus and a stringent vetting process for all judges, we simply cannot accept on faith that judges are knowledgeable, ethical and perceptive enough to distinguish between false performances gained through improper, harmful training techniques and those obtained through classically correct and humane methods.
The efficaciousness of torture techniques in eliciting quality cooperation from subjects has long been repudiated by both scientific and anecdotal evidence. Research in human psychology as well as clinical evidence have long suggested that subjects who are treated well by their interrogators and guards are much more likely to cooperate, exhibit positive behavior, and provide sound intelligence than those who have been forcibly coerced with physical or psychological abuse. It is no different when seeking the cooperation of our equine charges. Submission and obedience may be possible though harsh methods, but genuine cooperation and truly quality performances are not to be had by force. This fact has been common knowledge among the true proponents of classical horsemanship for centuries.
Xenophon, the ca. 431 – 355 BC Greek historian, soldier and equine enthusiast who wrote one of the earliest known treatises on horsemanship, said that “anything forced and misunderstood can never be beautiful. And to quote the words of Simon: If a dancer was forced to dance by whip and spikes, he would be no more beautiful than a horse trained under similar conditions.”
Use of the rollkur technique is the surest indicator that all other training, which is designed to create willing compliance on the part of the horse, has either been neglected, rushed, or poorly executed. Rollkur takes the place of valuable - but time consuming and sometimes challenging - classical or traditional methods, but does not successfully fill that void. If a horse is properly and progressively trained according to classical principles, stress positions and other methods of force become unnecessary.
Xenophon, and countless others before and since, understood what we seem to be forgetting: that the best way to elicit cooperation from the horse is through compassion, understanding and patience. No harsh tactic can ever replace a progressive and sympathetic method.
If training has not made a horse more beautiful, nobler in carriage, more attentive in his behavior, revealing pleasure in his own accomplishment... then he has not truly been schooled in dressage.
For an excellent article on rollkur with graphic examples and diagrams, check out:
More on the debate:
Postscript from the author:
For those who may become defensive of such tactics after years of employing them in their own riding simply because they don’t want to admit they were wrong, I say: join the club. We have all, at some point in our career, made mistakes. Most of us have used questionable methods or done things we are not proud of with regard to training our horses. Like many, I rode with well-respected trainers for whom improper methods were standard procedure, and I learned to use many of them without much thought of criticism. There was a point in my riding career when I took the time to think critically about the methods I was being taught, take stock of their effect on the horses, do the research and draw my own conclusions. I realized I could neither defend not justify those kind of techniques. Yes, I have, in my ignorance, employed methods like those I criticize here, and it does not make me proud. When I think of the untold damage I may have done to horses I’ve ridden in this period of my career, I get sick to my stomach. But I have learned from my mistakes and come out a better rider and trainer for it. It is never too late to change, and there is nothing shameful in admitting you were wrong, so long as you dedicate yourself from that moment on to doing what is right, and to continuing to question, think critically, and put the welfare of the horses above all else.