Tag Archives: rollkur

Rollkur and Its Effects on the Neck of the Horse

From Sustainable Dressage:

The shape of the neck is what is most visibly affected by riding the horse deep and rolled in since it is used as a tool for bending up the heavy back and/or off-setting the horse’s balance. The neck is very agile and most horses can bite their own chest, flank or rump if they make an effort. The vertebrae in the neck do not have the spinous processes that do those of the chest and back. and they work a bit like a chain, being very mobile in most directions. The muscles attach directly onto the vertebral bodies.

The spinal column of the neck does not follow the contour of the neck as seen from the outside. Rather, it is S-shaped inside the flesh of the neck. At the base of the neck the column comes out quite low. Then the spine bends upwards to be located near the top of the neck at the poll. It is natural for the horse to have this curvature of the spine of the neck, and though the curvature varies slightly from horse to horse it is basically the same. It can, however be changed through training or lack thereof.

Generally you can say that a horse showing a lot of underneck has a lower set base of the neck, spine-wise. It usually also has generous muscle bulk on the underside, but the two go hand in hand. If the horse has weak muscles supporting the base of the neck from above, it sags. The muscles from withers to poll take over, and the under neck stabilizes and stops the bulging bottom from protruding too much.

The greater bow of the S-curve at the bottom makes the neck shorten. In dressage there is much attention paid to the “arching” of the neck. But this is not an arch that one would want to increase, rather the opposite. The vertebral column of the neck should rather straighten than curve – the telescoping neck. It is the outside of the neck that arches in appearance. The bottom curve of the vertebral column lifts and straightens, the top part stays about the same, and between the very top vertebra and the skull, full relaxation of the muscles lets the head fall into place. The muscles around and in front of the withers help lifting the base of the neck, while they in their turn are aided by an active back.

In this way the shape of the neck is a good indication of how well the horse uses his back. The aim is to have the horse do this “topline stretch” both over the back and over the neck.

If you want to teach a horse to lift the base of the neck, straighten the vertebral column, lift the back and so on, the easiest and most productive way to do this is to ride the horse with a tendency for forward-down-out movement of the head and neck originating in stepping actively under with the hindlegs.

Now, I wrote tendency. It does not mean that the young horse should be ridden with his nose at the ground grubbing like a hog. No, a tendency for forward-down-out. The horse shall seek to stretch out but not actually do so. Rather contact the bit and stay there. The mere tendency makes this mechanism of lifting the base of the neck work. To begin with, there’s little, but the stronger and more well trained the horse gets, the better the effect. The topline muscles of the neck work at their medium length, and the muscles at the underside are disengaged. The head falls relaxed from the 1st vertebra and needs no fixing by muscles, but simply hangs by it’s own weight.

In 2000, Dr Vet Horst Weiler concluded his studies on illnesses in and around the attachments of tendons and ligaments in horses. In his studies, he found that 80% of horses used for dressage and jumping had injuries around the attachment of the nuchal cord on the head. Horses used for hacking, trotters, ponies, coldbloods, had these injuries much less or not at all. The injuries consisted of bony build-up on the site of the insertion at the back of the skull, bony nodules inside the ligament, mineralization of the ligament, etc. These are all the result of excessive stress and inflammation, because the body tries to reinforce an area threatened by rupture.

In an article in Dutch magazine Bit in 2003 Het Knikje – Overbelasting van de nekpees, Weiler’s answer to the question of what causes the overloading comes as rather a shock for dressage riders – It occurs when the horse makes the highly sought flexion in the poll in dressage training. Overbending, riding deep and round, or with the chin almost on the chest or behind the perpendicular is the cause of the problems, according to him.

These particular types of injuries are caused by a pulling,  torquing, or twisting stress on the ligament insertions. Now, remember that all horses graze, and they do it with their noses “on the ground”. But non-dressage/jumper horses had normal x-rays and skulls. Those horses graze too, so just stretching the head down is apparently not harmful. The sheering action on the ligament probably happens as the riders impose extreme poll flexion, curl their horses noses into the chest, and work them there repeatedly, for lengthy periods of time, or pull hard while doing so.




An article from Sustainable Dressage


Riding Front to Back – Hand Riding

To address the outline of the horse from the front is like painting a loaf of dough brown to make it baked. It is simply going about it the wrong way. It’s trying to mimic the finished results by adding it’s appearance, not by developing it’s prerequisites. The rein aids are a fact in dressage, there is no way around that. Some of the more sterner “purists” hardly acknowledge that the hands have any role at all to play in dressage, but renouncing rein aids is, of course, equally wrong. Relaxing the jaw, positioning to the inside, bending, etc is all done with the aids of the hands. So it’s not about that.

It is about the way the horse works. Energy, rhythm, balance and collection are generated in the quarters. The quality of the work of the quarters influences the quality of work of the whole horse. The influence of the rest of the horse on the quarters is literally non-existent, unless the horse is working correctly behind to start with. So training should start with, and continue to concern the quality of work of the hindquarters. Without that, one can bend and twist, stretch and loosen every part of the horse, and the quality of movement will still not improve. Most proficient rollkur riders know that. That is why they extend the trot and canter explosively forward, frequently, and also the reason for rushing around in medium trot working to get “active hindquarters”. Since the horse has to contract his underneck muscles in this work, and since the attention goes backwards to the chest or between the knees, these horses have to be chased forward for them to become active behind.

Signalling Submission

A horse shows his inferiority to another horse by lowering his head. The lower the head the more submission. It also works the other way around; if you lower the head of the horse he feels inferior. It can be a way of managing the relation between horse and rider. It can also be a way of robbing the horse of his pride, depending upon the extent to which it is done.

Field of Vision

The horse is very dependent on being able to adjust the head to focus his eye-sight at different depths. A horse that looks for something at the horizon lifts the nose to almost horizontal level, and looks along the back of his nose. When a horse focuses on something close, he changes the angle to approach the vertical, and looks at it straight out in front. 90 degrees to his nose.
Alison Harman, University of Western Australia, rider and neuroscientist:
“The field of view runs in the direction of the nose. Instead of it being in front of their head the way it is for us, it’s actually down their nose and sort of towards the ground. Above and below the nose, the horse simply couldn’t see.” Catalyst: Riding Blind – ABC TV Science >>
When the horse is made to hold his head well behind the vertical in deep or rollkur, this means that he, at the most, sees the ground immediately before his feet, in focus. You can clearly see that on showjumpers approaching a fence with the neck curled in. As the rider finally lets the horse up, he realises there’s a fence ahead. Ears point forward and he seeks the fence. If the rider were to keep the horse curled in, the odds are that the horse would not clear the fence because he cannot see it and because it restricts his freedom of movement.

There is much talk about riding forward when riding deep. The trouble is that the horse cannot see forward, and therefore has trouble thinking forward.


Riding Behind the Vertical

Both riding behind the vertical and rollkur methods impact the skeleton. Professor Horst Weiler’s research ,which took seven years and included 1,000 samples and 300 dissections , concluded that riding  behind the vertical (BTV), never mind rolkur, is damaging to the bony structures that make up the poll of the horses and the nuchal ligament.  Prof. Weiler is not a rabid anti rollkur fanatic, the poll of the horse just happened to be his area of research.


Note that Prof Rene Van Waren ,whose research on a sample of 10 horses or less which has been used to establish that hyperflexion is safe and benefical ,recently reversed his position in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. I applaud WAZ for the techniques he promotes and for teaching riders how to ride to the bit instead of behind it. These are in line with the very principles of dressage outlined in the FEI guidelines.

Professor Weiler’s research looked for pathological changes at the anchoring points of tendons, ligaments, joint capsules, and the nuchal ligament at the occiput in order to relate findings to sports activities of horses.

Dr. Weiler looked at Prezewalsky horses as one of the control groups. He also looked at ponies and horses in a broad age range including broodmares. He also looked at historical skeletons on a number of different horses of known age, including the skeleton of Condé, the horse of the Prussian King Friedrich II. This was a very in-depth research project. Research of this depth still remain unique today. He found more damage in dressage horses then any other disciplines.

Ride to the bit, and never use the reins to lower the head of the horse. I am saying this not as a trainer, but as a massage therapist who deals with the painful aftermath of heavy-handed riding.

Link to an Excellent Article on Rollkur


Any training method that uses extreme force is abuse, in my opinion. It is a shortcut created to obtain high scores in dressage. The muscles of the neck, particularly the brachiocephalicus and rectus capitus (the stress point shows up right behind the atlas), and back are particularly affected. If riders knew how much pain is being caused by the practice of rollkur, I doubt they would endorse or use it. Rollkur is contrary to the essence and foundation of dressage:

The neck should never be positioned without consideration of the rest of the horses’ body. Rollkur actually prevents the action of the hind legs to be transmitted through the back and to the mouth.


Is Your Horse Stiff?

There can be many causes for your horse being stiff in the area of the withers.  If your horse is willing to take either canter lead, but just feels tight and stiff, there could be a problem in the withers that can be corrected with myofascial release. Sometimes in turnout the horse will roll over a rock, or the saddle might  be slipping forward, or the horse has been ridden in “rollkur”. The thoracic vertebrae can be pushed out of alignment from any of these conditions. The trot and canter will immediately feel more supple,uphill, and free after one bodywork session.


Book Written for The Good of the Horse

Written by a veterinarian who also trained as a Bereiter in Germany, this book discusses correct and safe  training . He discusses hyperflexion or Rollkur (he is a founding member of Xenophon, an organization dedicated to fighting mistakes in equestrian sport):

Tug of War: Classical Versus “Modern” dressage, Why Classical Training Works and How Incorrect “Modern” Riding Negatively Affects Horses’ Health  by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann

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