• Julie Taylor

Hateful minorities

Updated: Feb 27, 2018

”I agree that the net effect of hyperflexion is more to do with getting better submission of a ‘hot’ horse rather than achieving gymnastic improvement, but this cannot be condemned, as submission of animals is an essential part of domestication in general and is at the heart of what we do with horses (and especially in dressage). In other words, we make them do exercises that they are physically capable of, but which they would never perform in nature if not forced to do so by circumstances. If you are of the opinion that humans should not impose their will on animals, then stop your equestrian activities.”

The quote was taken from an article by Dutch scientist, Professor René van Weeren, explaining his personal views on hyperflexion. The article was published in The Veterinary Journal and is awesomely entitled: About Rollkur, or low, deep and round: Why Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein were right

What is interesting about the quote is that it was Professor van Weeren who - as a scientist - testified to the biomechanical merits of low deep and round in 2006 when the FEI hosted its first official meeting to tackle the growing controversy surrounding roll kur.

According to the official FEI report from the Lausanne workshop:

”Professor van Weeren quantified the effect of 5 different positions on thoracolumbar kinematics of the horse and noted that position 4 (= head and neck lowered with nose behind the vertical) affected normal locomotion with a decrease in stride length and increase in range of motion (elasticity). This lent credibility to the fact that the position could be of value in training depending on by whom and how it was applied.”

To us mere mortals, this means that Professor van Weeren told the people at the meeting how five different head and neck positions affected the back movements and stride length of horses in a scientific study conducted by himself and a group of other scientists from the universities of Utrecht, Uppsala and Zürich. And that the roll kur position made the horses take shorter strides and increased the difference between the high and low points of the back swing.

You would have to actually read the study to learn the following, but the data also showed that the roll kur position made the horses hollow both the back under the saddle (in trot) and the loin (in trot), whereas this didn't happen in the un-forced head and neck position. So you might ask yourself if the ”increased range of motion of the thoraco-lumbar spine” interpreted by Professor van Weeren before the learned ladies and gentlemen of the FEI in 2006 as”elasticity” was in fact just an expression of how badly the back is hollowed when the neck is hyperflexed.

However, nobody in attendance (or at least nobody with a say) asked themselves that question back in 2006 – instead, it was declared that a respected Professor in biomechanics had assured the delegates of the roll kur meeting that the scientific data available lent credibility to the claims by roll kur trainers that the technique was of gymnastic value to the horse.

This is all history.

Whenever you hear a veterinarian or rider or trainer say something along the lines of: ”It has been scientifically shown that LDR increases the elasticity of the horse's movements”, rest assured that they are referring to the presentation of Professor van Weeren in 2006.

At the time some people, including Professor Heinz Meyer – listed as a co-author of the study – took exception to the interpretation of the data presented by van Weeren in Lausanne. But what most people wanted to hear was that all was well in dressage land and so that was the take home message that prevailed.

So back to the future – or at least to the present day: (Let's just have that quote again)

”I agree that the net effect of hyperflexion is more to do with getting better submission of a ‘hot’ horse rather than achieving gymnastic improvement”

Professor René van Weeren, 2013

We have to assume that this means Professor van Weeren has changed his mind since 2003, when he co-authered an article in Dressage Today, according to which putting the horse's nose on its chest had definite, gymnastic advantages:

”But what happens when we put the horse’s head intentionally onto his chest – for example, an extremely bent neck and, at the same time, activating his haunches. Through the simultaneous action of asking the horse to step forward with his hind legs and bending his neck to the fullest extent, we draw the bow to its maximum. This kind of training is useful for the musculature system since the abdominal muscles together with the above-mentioned sublumbar muscles (below the thoracic vertebrae and sacrum) must counteract the increased tension of the bow. The nuchal/supraspinous ligament is stretched through the forward pull on the nuchal ligaments and through the upward contracting of the abdominal muscles. This improves the elasticity of the spine.” René van Weeren and Solange Schrijer 2003.

Here at Epona.tv, we often change our minds about all kinds of things. We are fans of changing one's mind when faced with evidence to the contrary of one's previous convictions. So Professor van Weeren shall hear nothing but praise from us for his change of heart. For whatever that's worth to someone like him.

However, Professor van Weeren has chosen to dedicate the rest of his personal opinion piece in The Veterinary Journal to accusing the ”militant minority”, actively working to oppose the spread of roll kur, of basing their arguments ”purely on emotion” as ”they spin the outcome of scientific work to fit their own agenda.”

Ahem... if we may: pot, kettle. Kettle, pot.

In 2006, Professor van Weeren helped the proponents of roll kur to convince the FEI and dressage fans everywhere that ”low deep and round” was in fact just a really advanced way to help horses get stronger and more elastic in the right places and fare better when faced with the strains of competition life. Something which he no longer believes to be true. Echoes of the misinformation he spread can still be heard in riding arenas all over the world, to the detriment of the horses it affects. Professor van Weeren could have avoided this by sticking to the science, but instead he served his personal opinion up as fact.

That happens to all of us from time to time.

We don't know why he did it. We hope he didn't just do it to impress the Dutch equestrian federation and other powers that be. We trust in his genuine and innocent delusion at the time. Unlike Professor van Weeren, we prefer to err on the side of generosity in matters such as this. Rather than accusing everyone who doesn't agree with us of simply being evil.

In his opinion piece, Professor van Weeren offers little that is actually new (apart from his own U-turn where the gymnastic value of LDR is concerned). He runs through the scientific studies performed to date, and concludes – as anyone must – that there is little or no conclusive evidence as to any long term deleterious effects of hyperflexion. We can't say for sure that it kills horses. So that makes it okay. It's the same old song.

We've asked this question before, but we're happy to ask it again:

Where is the evidence that whipping the horse in the face, hitting it on the legs with a bamboo stick, stabbing holes into its sides with a spur or riding it with a piece of barbed wire in its mouth will necessarily lead to an early death? The answer is that there is no such evidence. These practices are banned by the FEI, not because they demonstrably shorten the life of horses, but because they are considered blatantly cruel.

It is not about whether hyperflexion kills or maims horses. It's about whether it - or rather the interventions required to make it happen -  causes them to suffer. After all, one can administer atomic wedgies to a biased scientist, one for every day of the year for his entire life and there is no evidence at all that he shouldn't live to be a hundred all the same. That doesn't mean it's morally justifiable to do so.

However, for Professor van Weeren – as for many others in the industry – the roll kur controversy is still about whether horses actually drop dead as a direct result of having been trained in hyperflexion.

In his opinion piece, he writes:

”Let me be quite clear on one point, there is absolutely no way an experienced rider will ruin a horse using hyperflexion. If it was possible, then how could horses trained using hyperflexion have successfully competed and won medals in three consecutive Olympic Games? ”

(The answer to this question is very simply that if roll kur produces the kind of horse the judges want to see, then of course, the surviving roll kur horses are going to win the medals. Ahem. Duh!)

Anyway, we consider ”there is absolutely no way an experienced rider will ruin a horse using hyperflexion” to be a rather bold statement. Especially as Professor van Weeren later writes:

”There is no doubt (and the scientific evidence given above confirms this) that hyperflexion is an extreme position of head and neck and that it profoundly influences the physical and mental status of the horse. There is also little doubt that equine welfare will be severely impaired by imposing this position with force for prolonged periods. And, yes, this is happening in the field and is the cause of much suffering of horses.”

So if forcing the horse into hyperflexion ”is the cause of much suffering” and ”there is absolutely no way an experienced rider will ruin a horse using hyperflexion”... does that mean that no experienced rider ever forces a horse into hyperflexion? Or does it mean that suffering doesn't necessarily ruin the horse? We thought these scientific journals had some really smart people read the articles and point out any blatant stupidity. Perhaps opinion pieces are not subject to such scrutiny. Or perhaps this one was proof read by The Veterinary Journal's editor-in-chief Andrew J Higgins, also of FEI veterinary and welfare sub-committee fame, not exactly known for his propensity to take the horse's side in matters such as this.

(Sorry, did we just get personal over something as trivial as a scientific journal spouting unsubstantiated, political drivel to make life easier for people who want to be mean to animals?)

We wonder how Professor van Weeren defines force when he is able to state so categorically that: ” ...there is absolutely no way an experienced rider will ruin a horse using hyperflexion.”

We wonder how he can possibly know this when he has just taken such care to explain that the evidence is inconclusive. Perhaps it's okay for scientists to base their arguments ”purely on emotion, not on facts” while militant extremists and other such riff raff are obliged to provide sound, peer reviewed and published evidence to substatiate their opinions. Like the rules of the FEI, the rules of René van Weeren seem subject to sudden and inexplicable alteration. At least that's one constant for the rest of us to cling to.

We also wonder if René van Weeren thinks that there are only two ways of training an animal: Total domination or not at all.

”If you are of the opinion that humans should not impose their will on animals, then stop your equestrian activities.”

In other words, if you happen to be skilled enough to train your horse to do what you want without forcing it, René van Weeren sends his regards and requests that you immediately cease and desist.

The whole thing is very illogical and begs the question: Why now? What is that article doing in The Veterinary Journal? And how on Earth did something so incoherent get there in the first place? It does not impart knowledge. It does not provide rational argument. All it does is attempt to trivialise the roll kur debate – a tactic long employed by those who stand to gain from perpetuation of the status quo - a convenient few months before a major championship. We hope this piece was not published in The Veterinary Journal, just so that the equestrian industry's PR machine will have something to refer reporters to when the inevitable photos and videos of roll kur scandalise the upcoming European Championships.

Conspiracy theories are fun, aren't they?

According to René van Weeren, ”tolerance” is what is lacking in those who speak out against roll kur. You are ”hateful” if seeing horses forced into this posture makes you angry. When openly criticising particular riders, you are ”generating personal attacks”. In short, you are the baddie. Luckily for the order of the universe, René van Weeren knows that your evil plot shall surely fail:

”It is clear that we shall never convince the militants, who can only think in black and white, as pointed out by Churchill.”

(For those of you who didn't know it, Winston Churchill was pro hyperflexion)

”But that does not matter as long as the influence of the extremists remains limited and the rules are set by wise, thoughtful people, who recognise the multifaceted reality.”

(People like Winston Churchill and René van Weeren)

Actually, we do agree with René van Weeren (and Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein) that it is the way the position is coercively obtained and not the position itself which is objectionable. The problem is that we seem to disagree as to the meaning of terms like "force" and "coercion". When we go to international horse shows, we don't really see a whole lot of horses volunteering for hyperflexion. We mostly see riders pulling and yanking and prodding and niggling to get them there. And that is not okay. It is only in theory that the roll kur controversy can be separated from the general problem with coercive riding.

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