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  • Writer's pictureJulie Taylor

Vertical limit

Updated: Feb 14, 2018

Forget nitpicking over the definitions of rollkur and LDR. A guest editorial in the latest edition of The Veterinary Journal is called ”Behind the vertical – behind the times” and points to horses ridden in still narrower frames in dressage competitions as an escalating welfare concern.

Gone is the usual conditional rhetoric where hyperflexion is condemned only as used by "inexperienced riders" or for a long time. Notably, the terms ”excessive” and ”prolonged” appear zero times in the entire Veterinary Journal editorial. Riding behind the vertical is a sign of bad riding and the FEI needs to take measures to curb the trend, demand the authors. The suggested methods are electronic monitoring and an enforceable ban on the tight nosebands which enable coercive riding by disguising attempts by the horse to evade strong pressures.

The occasion for this editorial by Dr. Uta König von Borstel and Professor Paul McGreevy is a recently published study by Dr. Morgan Lashley et al in which video analysis of elite dressage performances from the Olympics in 1992 and the World Cup final in 2008 showed that as horses have become more and more restricted in front by the reins, dressage scores have been on the climb.

Or as von Borstel and McGreevy put it in their editorial: ”Performances are more pleasing to judges while true quality is declining.”

You know when they do a scientific study and you sit there going: ”Well, I could have told them that”? There are bound to be a lot of people scratching their heads and feeling like that right now. But isn't it great to have a published study to which you can point when your friends tell you that you're paranoid and that the sport of dressage is in fact on an exciting trajectory to previously unknown levels of awesomeness?

This is not a discussion of hyperflexion in the schooling of horses though. We've had that discussion until we were sick of it and we know that hyperflexion causes the horse's loin to hollow and the hind legs to trail and that it impairs neurological function, respiration and vision. We know that hyperflexion causes horses to experience acute stress and display conflict behaviours. We also know that the only biomechanics scientist who was ever really passionately convinced of the merits of hyperflexion has since changed his tune and now believes it is mostly about subordinating the horse. If you want to discuss that stuff, go somewhere else, because I'm bored with it. Feel free to hyperflex your horse if you still think it's a good idea after examining all the evidence. Don't let me stop you.

This discussion is about what happens after the bell rings and the horse enters the arena. And the rise of hyperflexion as a training technique in elite dressage seems to have happened in correlation with another trend: The increased inability of riders to keep their horses forward in front of the vertical when riding in front of the judge.

Training horses to curl up their necks to avoid bit pressure causes horses to curl up their necks to avoid bit pressure. If you need to see scientific evidence of this, here it is.

I still remember when the London 2012 rollkur scandal had just exploded after St. Georg had published photos of Patrik Kittel seemingly hyperflexing Watermill Scandic (again) during a schooling session at the Olympics. I was watching Kittel's ride on television when Scandic opted to put his nose on his chest instead of reining back. Similarly, in a study by Dr. Janne Winther-Christensen on the differences in the behaviour of horses ridden in hyperflexion and in front of the vertical, the test riders (all advanced dressage riders on advanced dressage horses) were not actually able to ride their horses without the horses going behind the vertical, so the researchers were unable to complete the study as originally planned. True story.

So how are these riders competing and even making a living out of it? As you will already be aware if you have done any research at all, top dressage judges have been known to willynilly hand out medals to whichever riders happen to be popular. Like well dressed, human clap-o-meters, the judges sit in their sheds and allocate immortality to the ones with the biggest smiles and the best social media strategies. I know it's fashionable to blame the judges, though I'm not one to do so. As König von Borstel and McGreevy point out: "blaming only the judges is too simplistic. Riders frequently flex their horses less as they transition from warm-up to competition (Kienapfel et al., 2014), indicating their awareness of correct technique."

The riders know what they're doing. Nobody is holding a gun to their heads and ultimately, they are the ones responsible for their actions. Not the judges.

The judges are not entirely about the hair and makeup though. They are also scoring the combinations for their performances. They're just not doing it in accordance with the rules of dressage. Back in 1992, the 15 best performing horses at the Olympics were largely behind the vertical in collected trot and collected canter, according to Lashey et al. By 2008, that was still the case at the World Cup finals. Only now, the horses were also behind the vertical in piaffe and passage. There was even a correlation between being behind the vertical in piaffe and achieving the highest marks. Thus, the winning horse was on the vertical or in front of the vertical in exactly zero per cent of the piaffe video frames analysed. The same applied to the horse whose rider took the silver. The bronze winning combination, however, had committed the crime of only being behind the vertical in 40 per cent of the piaffe video frames analyzed. The horse in 14thplace out of the 15 finalists was the only one to be ”not behind the vertical” in every piaffe video frame analyzed.

Aside from the Lashley study, König von Borstel and McGreevy include some cool scientific references in their editorial, which basically burst the bubble of anyone who thinks that the photos and videos of hyperflexion at horse shows are just unfortunate moments in time and not indicative of a major trend.

From the editorial in The Veterinary Journal:

”Indeed, nowadays most dressage horses at competitions (69%; Kienapfel et al., 2014) and when advertised for sale (68%; McGreevy et al., 2010) are ridden behind the vertical. Even in the initial training of 3-year old horses, professionals ride this way (22%; König von Borstel et al., 2012). Such fundamental departures from best practice are unwelcome news for the FEI. The organisation’s stated commitment is to ‘preserve and protect the welfare of the Horse...’ (FEI, 2014) and the Federation repeatedly assures us and the media that 'welfare of the horses is paramount’. Its 2009 decision to disband its own welfare sub-committee seems more ill-judged than ever.”

So you're selling your horse. You want to show him off in the best possible light in the sales ad. You get someone to take a bunch of photographs of your riding and then you select the one or two unfortunate moments in time where he happens to duck behind the vertical for your advertisement.

Why would you do that? I'll tell you. You either use a photo of your horse going behind the vertical in a sales ad because you don't have any photos where he's not behind the vertical. Or you do it because you think he looks prettiest that way or because you think others will think he is prettier that way. Or all of the above. You certainly don't deliberately use a photo of what you perceive to be incorrect training to advertise your riding horse for sale. This study confirms what König von Borstel and McGreevy say in their editorial: ”the trend for hyperflexion is trickling down to the grass roots” which highlights the importance of doing something about it.

Also very interesting is the fact that of all the studies looking at how much we're riding our horses behind the vertical, the lowest frequency was found by König von Borstel et al. in 2012 where only 22 per cent of three-year-old horses were ridden behind the vertical. So much for the claims that riding a horse deep and round is ”just until he becomes stronger” and that the horses are the ones picking this posture because it makes it easier for them to carry the rider. If that were the case, more young horses than advanced horses would be ducking behind the vertical.

The scientists behind the editorial end up concluding that the FEI needs to not only undo what it did when it disbanded its welfare sub-committee back in 2009. It needs to do even better. Since the FEI first announced a need for more scientific study into riding horses behind the vertical in 2006, more than 30 such studies have been conducted and published. Now it's time to act.

I'll leave you with the words of König von Borstel and McGreevy:

"The time has come for horse sport organisations to show that they are leading the way, lest they be led by other authorities, such as the International Olympic Committee. Dressage, eventing and show-jumping are unique in that they are the only sports that use animals at the Olympic level. As such, they must be able to respond to concerns about animal welfare. The FEI does not need a sub-committee but a full committee devoted to monitoring and advancing horse welfare. Horses deserve such a committee that leads rather than reacts; that deploys new technologies to assist judges; that ensures that sound principles are held sacred, and that assures the watching world that the welfare of equine athletes is truly paramount."

The ball is in your court, FEI.

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