Dressage Hyperflexion Controversy Lingers: World Horse Welfare Conference Discussion on “Potentially Aggressive” Training Methods

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It was a loaded question and you could sense both how carefully the woman in the audience framed it…and how carefully the people on the stage variously answered or avoided it.

The setting was last week’s World Horse Welfare conference in London. The cast included an esteemed panel of experts with horse show and equestrian extravanganza impresario Simon Brooks-Ward CVO OBE??TD?as moderator.

While the question was not aimed as a criticism of the British team’s performance at the recent London 2012 Olympic Games, you know that Greenwich Park flashed through people’s minds–and the controversies of the past few years that led up to London.

And this was, after all, the World Horse Welfare conference.

“Is it ever justifiable to use potentially aggressive methods to get the best out of a horse before or during competition?”

Will Connell, World Class Performance Director of the British Equestrian Federation, and the ubiquitous chef e’equipe of British teams, said: “I would absolutely say that a training method that causes pain and discomfort in a prolonged way is not acceptable.

“That said, there are situations, not at top level of course, when a horse needs squaring up, to use a colloquial term…”

Connell disparaged using still photos as a way to condemn dressage riders for abuse and praised the British system for its close scrutiny and evaluation of training methods. Connell nonchalantly mentioned that rollkur-type methods are used in other sports.

Connell’s quip comparing the number of FEI stewards on the ground at Greenwich Park to the number of squirrels drew a laugh, but we know that in spite of the stewards, rollkur critics still managed to capture images of questionable training techniques in use at the Olympics.

“Questionable”? It is not news that training techniques used by some riders to warm up for dressage are objectionable to some followers of the sport. FEI rules have been developed to keep those techniques to a minimum, allowing only intermittent, short-term forcing of a horse into an overbent frame.

Critics charge that the stewards at FEI competitions do not fulfill their responsibility in monitoring the prolonged use of hyperflexion in dressage warmup, and that the riders know exactly what they can and cannot do–and for how long at a stretch–but disregard the rules. Other critics believe that rollkur for any amount of time at all is unacceptable. Biomechanics research has been inconclusive, with conflicting studies using conflicting methods of simulating rollkur yielding different results of how harmful it is to horses.

Baroness Ann Mallalieu QC, Labour Peer and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Horse, was sitting on the other side of the stage from Connell; she expressed concern that horses were being asked to move in completely unnatural ways in some sports, possibly bringing the question back into the frame posed by the audience member.

By then, however, the momentum of the question was lost. Or was it? Sitting on the stage was someone just as qualified as Connell to voice an observation on the controversy: Lucy Higginson, editor of Horse and Hound. Like all horse magazine and web editors, Lucy has an ear to the ground, and knows full well that the horse world is still rumbling with the amplified discontent of disgruntled anti-rollkur activisits who eschew the “new look” of dressage in sport and saw as much to dislike in the glorious Olympic dressage events as others found to like.

The ghost of rollkur floated above the auditorium, though few could bring themselves to speak its name.

Higginson’s method of defusing the question was to turn it inside out. She gave the example of injuries caused to horses whose trainers and riders force them into unrealistic frames or use training techniques to rush them through the levels or perhaps demand higher performance than a horse is physically built to execute.

In a stroke of improv genius–or had he characteristically staged the entire segment in advance?–Brooks-Ward took the pressure off the panelists and asked the camera to pan across the audience to the man whose comment could make a difference: Ingmar DeVos, Secretary General and CEO of the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI), the world governing body of horse sport. His organization had been overtly lauded from the stage and there he was, sitting in the audience.

DeVos gracefully embraced the discussion, then tossed the question into the province of the FEI stewards, whom he said he trusts, and, echoing Higgnson, brought up the way that horses are trained at home.

A representative of the RSPCA then called on Connell to define his interpretation of how a rider would “square up” a horse and keep inside welfare guidelines.

The British are civilized, to be sure. Their restraint was admirable and the audience was very respectful.

But we all know that this discussion is not over yet. It remains open like a loose fence post or broken rail in a fence–one that we all know is there, but hope the horses won’t find. When and if they do, it could get messy.

We sincerely intend to fix it, and we’ve patched it up as best we can for now. As soon as we get the right tools, the right helpers, and the right perfect sunny afternoon, we’ll fix it. But that day hasn’t come yet, so the question keeps coming up, and keeps bouncing awkwardly across the stage, the room and entire horse world.




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