Huff And Puff Training And Leadership: An Opinion On The FEI Rollkur Decision

Feb 14, 2010 - 4:36 PM

There are some riders who huff and puff like the big bad wolf and bully and dominate their horses. These riders are often aggressive and use force to achieve their aims, particularly an unnatural position of the horse’s head and neck. But now they are in serious trouble because, almost exactly four years since they first organized a workshop on the subject, the Fédération Equestre Internationale officials have said this week “that any head and neck position achieved through aggressive force is not acceptable.” Joy of joy they have also finally announced that Rollkur/hyperflexion is also unacceptable. Too good to be true? Yes!

Does Rollkur Equate To Aggression?

In the process of arriving at this conclusion, the group redefined hyperflexion/Rollkur as flexion of the horse’s neck achieved through aggressive force. Therefore, the condemnation of Rollkur is largely spin—a positive headline for the press—as it would not be possible to find any high level trainer who would say that using aggressive force is acceptable.

To suggest that Sjef Janssen and Anky van Grunsven, or Dr Schulten-Baumer, Nicole Uphoff and Isabell Werth before them, use aggressive force appears to be way off the mark, and it will not help the case of those who wish to limit or eliminate the use of what is now going to be described as Low, Deep and Round.

The statement from the FEI says, “The technique known as Low, Deep and Round (LDR), which achieves flexion without undue force, is acceptable.” So the advocates of LDR will continue to do what they have been doing, even if it is no longer called Rollkur or hyperflexion. Therefore, this little magic word trick will not change anything, and it simply looks like the FEI officials are trying to have their cake and eat it too.

The Other Side Of The Coin

Others do not agree with this, and, in particular, Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, the anti-rollkur Messiah, doesn’t think this is the case. He was quoted in Cavallo as saying that it was “a major step in the interests of animal welfare.” I would be so very pleased if he is right, and I hope he is right.

He and his anti-Rollkur supporters, who produced a petition of 41,000 signatories, are to be congratulated on their determination and persistence in their fight to be heard.

And Princess Haya, President of the FEI, deserves huge praise for listening to them, and for both accepting this petition personally and making this round table conference possible. She has shown courage and determination when others in her situation could so easily have put the subject on the long finger, especially after the recent mauling the FEI received on the new drugs policy. I have no doubt that we are very fortunate to have Princess Haya as President and feel sure that at least the door is open to real progress on this issue.

In the short term progress will depend on the working group, headed by Dressage Committee Chair Frank Kemperman, to expand the current guidelines for stewards to facilitate the implementation of the new policy on LDR. The FEI Management is also going to study a range of additional measures, including the use of closed circuit television for warm-up arenas at selected shows. These are very positive steps that will undoubtedly make a difference to attitudes both within and outside the sport.

This latter area is so important because no one would deny that the whole Rollkur debate has been hugely damaging, not only to dressage, but also to all equestrian sports.

Responsibility

We all have a responsibility to guard and improve the image of equestrian sports, and no sport that uses a horse can stand alone and ignore accepted welfare standards. If they do they weaken us all.

So it was interesting to hear the round table group also state “the main responsibility for the welfare of the horse rests with the rider.

Yes, individual responsibility is vital, but, equally, the responsibility of the national governing bodies and the international governing body is also vital. They represent accumulated knowledge and wisdom, and they create rules, regulations and education to ensure that the “mad or bad” within a sport are kept from causing harm. So surely this has to be a partnership.

This controversy has blighted dressage since the article in St. Georg in December of 2005, and so there have been four years of concern, bad publicity and little joined up leadership and responsibility. This has created part of the problem, because, despite individual statements from certain judges and trainers saying that Rollkur was inconsistent with classical principles, there hasn’t been a consistent and well-communicated response from the FEI or National Governing Bodies.

Changing Opinions

In January of 2006, the FEI first organized a workshop to discuss the Rollkur training method. Sixty experts were invited to this workshop.

Two major conclusions were reached at this meeting, which the FEI formulated as following: “There was clearly no evidence that structural damage is created by this training exercise, when used in the right way by expert riders. However, the use of that technique by inexperienced people was a possible threat to the welfare of the horse. The role of top dressage riders as role models in the sport was underlined. Most of the participants agreed that the terminology “Rollkur” was not comprehensible and decided it would be better to use a term which could be understood by riders, trainers and the general public. After an extensive discussion, it was proposed that the draft wording might be ‘hyperflexion of the neck.’ “

Then in April of 2008, FEI officials made a formal statement regarding Rollkur/hyperflexion: “There are no known clinical side effects specifically arising from the use of hyperflexion, however there are serious concerns for a horse’s well-being if the technique is not practiced correctly. The FEI condemns hyperflexion in any equestrian sport as an example of mental abuse. The FEI states that it does not support the practice.”

Shortly afterwards, this statement was withdrawn after the discovery that it wasn’t unanimously agreed upon by the Veterinary Bureau or the FEI Bureau.

But, despite this, and huge amounts of negative publicity from every equestrian country in the world, the practice of Rollkur is now used by more riders rather than less, and the FEI says in 2010 “that the technique known as Low, Deep and Round (LDR), which achieves flexion without undue force, is acceptable.”

However Sjef Janssen, the trainer who claims to have invented Rollkur, despite the fact that it has been common in the show jumping world for many years, says specifically that “LDR is totally different from what I do.” But he will soon discover whether dressage stewards consider that he is using “unacceptable” Rollkur or “acceptable” LDR.

Rules

So although the round table group agreed that no changes are required to the current FEI Rules, the above would suggest that much work still has to be done on specific definitions and in gaining consensus.

If all national governing bodies were certain about this matter, the controversy would not have dragged on so long, and fewer people would be using the technique. So this suggests that more leading trainers and riders have to take more responsibility, with an understanding of their role in the big picture, and help their NGBs and the FEI have a positive and humane strategy for this subject.

Show Jumping And Rollkur 

In addition, the FEI and show jumping national governing bodies have to face up to the problem of the use of this technique in the show jumping world.

The presence of show jumping representatives—David Broome from the United Kingdom and John Roche from the FEI—in the round table group is an indication that Princess Haya does want to broaden this discussion and achieve consensus across the disciplines.

Princess Haya is without doubt trying to be proactive and strong about this matter. But, despite the 41,000 signing Dr Heuschmann’s petition, there are too many leading lights in the training world sitting on the fence, or taking a “huff and puff” negative approach that does little to help give answers in practice and present an attractive face to the wider world.

William Micklem is an international coach and educational and motivational speaker. He is a Fellow of the British Horse Society and author of The DK Complete Horse Riding Manual, the world’s top-selling training manual. He found Karen and David O’Connor’s three Olympic medalists Biko, Giltedge and Custom Made and breeds event horses, including Karen O’Connor’s Olympic horse Mandiba and Zara Phillip’s High Kingdom. He is also the inventor of the Micklem Bridle, which is now approved for use in dressage by the FEI. www.WilliamMicklem.com

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