9th February 2010 - Redefinition

Tue, 02/09/2010 - 00:00

The entire dressage world looked with much anticipation to the FEI Round Table Conference on the Rollkur held at the FEI Headquarters in Lausanne on 9 February 2010. Already little before 5 PM, the official FEI press release arrived in mailboxes world-wide with the big, bold headline "Rollkur Controversy Resolved!" Could it actually be that the FEI has taken the path of clarity and decision?

What an optimistic stand and quick solution for a debate that has been raging for more than five years. In 2006 a similar pseudo-work group was assembled following an international dispute which arose mainly between Holland and Germany after the publication of the "Dressage Perverse" article in the August edition of the German equestrian magazine St. Georg.

At the 2006 FEI workshop experts from all fields -- dressage trainers, PhD scientists in biomechanics and veterinarians -- were asked to bring to the fore evidence of the damage rollkur does to a horse. Dutch vet Rene van Weeren showed x-rays of the healthy neck of Salinero, Anky's double Olympic gold medal winning dressage horse which has been trained in the rollkur, not to forget by professional hands. The workshop was a travesty which only let to a linguistic redefinition of the term "rollkur." "hyperflexion" as the latter term would carry less negative connotations and could be "better understood".

In 2006 hyperflexion of the neck was defined as, "a technique of working/training to provide a degree of longitudinal flexion of the mid-region of the neck. Hyperflexion cannot be self-maintained by the horse for an extended period of time."

Fast forward to 2010. Footage of Patrik Kittel training his Grand Prix horse Scandic in the rollkur for an extended period of time with the horse's tongue briefly hanging limp and blue out of the mouth, had masses of people rearing as they recognized an aggressive riding style in the video clip against the welfare of the horse. A barrage of emails was sent to the FEI in request of action. The Round Table Conference was the FEI's answer.

And what is the results: redefinition of the redefinition. Only progress in the linguistic field has been made. What a pity dressage is an active sport, not one of words. Hyperflexion no longer covers the cargo. This FEI term has become more quickly out of fashion than crocs. Let's call it "Long Deep and Round" (LDR) and the problem might be solved... for another few years.

At the Round Table Conference hyperflexion or rollkur is defined as flexion of the horse’s neck "achieved through aggressive force." This almost seems like an official acknowledgement that rollkur riders have been flexing their horse's neck with aggressive force between 2006 and 2010. Felix culpa. Apparently the LDR method is more mild to the horse as it "achieves flexion without undue force." And the FEI is proud to state it has solved the controversy by banning Rollkur but concluding that LDR "is acceptable."

In other words, hyperflexed horses are allowed in the warm up ring, as long as no aggression is displayed by the riders. But what is aggressive force? Yanking and pulling or tightening the noseband that the horse can hardly breathe? Or what about the time frame in which a horse's neck is flexed deep and round or held tight and up? How long can the horse be in such a frame before it becomes harmful? Are extreme sweating, swooshing tails, hollow backs or excessive salivation signs of a horse that is being stressed by an "aggressive" rider? None of these issues have been clarified at the conference and more importantly, these forms of abuse are done by riders in both the classical and rollkur training system and are hardly ever flagged by stewards!!

In 2006 the FEI mentioned in its report that "a more detailed definition of what is to be considered as abuse is required, e.g. stress factors, pain or discomfort." Furthermore, at the time the FEI stressed that the "education of stewards to identify possible abuse and misuse of this technique" was necessary. Where we do stand five years later?

A stewarding program is certainly in place but they don't have the authority and guts to act against abuse in the warm up ring (rollkur based or not). The stewards' lack of power is the weakest link of the whole "rollkur debate." There are trainers and riders out there with a big mouth and no decency whatsoever. When aggressive riding is noted (no matter what training system: rollkur or classical) by the steward and he is making his move in the trainer's direction, he will be barked and verbally abused at an equal level as a rider is bullying his horse into submission. Most stewards retreat into their foxhole only to re-appear when the show's over. In the country of the blind stewards, the one-eyed trainer is king.

It is an interesting idea to have cameras installed in the warm-up ring so riders are under constant supervision of the judges, for instance, and abuse or aggression can be caught on tape.

Once more the FEI claims it will work on educating the stewards and it has put Frank Kemperman in charge to expand the current guidelines for stewards to facilitate the implementation of this policy. Even more power to one person. Not to question the Dutchman's capabilities, but Kemperman will now be juggling presidency of the FEI Dressage Committee, directing the biggest equestrian event of the year the CHIO Aachen, and heading this steward working group. How much more can he take on his plate and still work efficiently? We certainly hope this superman can fulfil all his promises of a better dressage world!

More than 40,000 people signed a petition against rollkur which was presented by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann to FEI president Princess Haya. This voice of a majority, no matter if they are experts or amateurs, should be seen in the big picture: as an outcry against abuse in the warm up ring no matter what training system. The huge amount of signatures reflects that the global image of the sport appears to be a bad one, in spite of the positive publicity a Totilas brings.

-- Astrid Appels

Related Links
2006 FEI Workshop on Rollkur
2010 FEI Round Table Conference on Rollkur