I am sitting here reading the latest published study in the danish magazine “Hestemagasinet” (Horsemagazine) about the effect of the head posture on the upper airways, and how much pressure the riders use in the different postures. Competition posture, Hyperflexion or Rollkur, LDR (Low, Deep and Round) and a free posture.
My very first thought was:” What on earth happened to common sense?”
Why do we need a study like that? And now it really worries me how the results of this study are received and used in practice in the different riding arenas.
The results from the study show that there is no difference between competition posture and hyperflexion as far as changes of the upper respiratory airways go. However, hyperflexion and competition posture did have a higher amount of changes of the respiratory airways than LDR and the free posture.
I was really touched by this article and that´s why I had to get my professional evaluation of the way the article showed the results of the study off my chest. Because it really makes me sad and because I think that we can move so much further when we use normal common sense.
A definition of the four types of postures from the study
Before I move on and tell about why this article moves me so much as a veterinarian, I would like to give a short definition of the different postures. Please be aware that these are not my own definitions, but more so the general definition (inspired by FEI – The international governing body for all Olympic equestrian disciplines).
Rollkur/hyperflexion: The rider pressures forcefully the neck of the horse into bending in such an extreme way that the joints are placed far out of normal position.
Low, Deep and Round (LDR): the rider puts pressure on the neck of the horse into a very deep bending without using force.
Competition posture: the horse carries his head in or in front of the vertical.
Free posture: the horse places his head wherever he wants to and the rider has completely loose reins.
For me it is normal common sense that riding behind the vertical is not good for the horse and I will explain why
Now, I don´t know whether it is the journalist or the veterinarians behind the study who are exclaiming the following:
“If you believe that hyperflexion is a forced posture then you should believe the same thing about the competition posture. On the other hand, you should, if you accept competition posture as an unrestrained posture, have the same attitude towards hyperflexion” (Hestemagasinet Nr. 12, 2016)
Reading a statement like this really upsets me.
To me it is normal common sense that horses don´t feel well when ever their heads are pulled far behind the vertical, or that they themselves choose to hide behind the vertical. It does happen that the horse chooses to hide far behind the vertical and it shows the lack of strength of the horse´s body to be able to carry the rider in a good body posture. Typically, it happens for young horses when learning rein contact which is something I focus a lot on in my training – and I use both ProPrio training and different riding exercises.
We need to make a point of training to get away from this sad tendency (that the horse is being forced behind the vertical or chooses the position himself because of lack of strength) so that we don´t end up with a horse locked in an undesirable pattern of movement and having a higher risk of developing kissing spine and osteoarthritis later on in life.
Why this article is not to be seen as an accept of riding behind the vertical
The study behind the article focuses on a bit of the question whether one or another posture is harmful to the horse – the focus is on the intake of air and rein pressure. It is important for me to emphasize that rollkur is still not allowed by the FEI as a method of training.
Yes, isn´t wonderful that a horse being ridden in rollkur is able to breathe (and thank God for that) but so many other problems occur when riding a horse so far behind the vertical.
Biomechanics explain that something happens with the bones, joints, tendons, muscles and connective tissue when a horse puts his head behind the vertical. And this is not included in this article – which is enough reason to still warn against riding behind the vertical.
The sight of the horse will be affected when he has no way of lifting his head and look forward. Horses are not able to move their eyes up and down like we do. They are only able to move them from side to side and it means that their eyes have to be in a certain position for them to be able to orientate themselves – or they may lose their balance. When a horse has to use so much extra strength in order to keep balanced, it wears his body and his muscles get full of lactic acid.
Also,the ear of the horse with the large vestibular organ inside, is affected in a negative way, when the head of the horse is behind the vertical. And especially the ear and the sight are closely connected. Those two large sensory organs are crucial to maintain a good and healthy body posture.
The mobility of the jaw is also clearly limited. The article shows pictures of the four head positions (Competition posture, Hyperflexion or Rollkur, LDR and the free posture) that were included in the study. It really saddens me to see the picture of the horse in a competition posture trying to open his mouth, but a tight noseband puts a stop to that. Generally, it looks like the headstall is adjusted way too tight in all the pictures – which is something that I think should be taken a closer look at.
The biomechanic consequences of riding behind the vertical has not been studied in this article
The researchers finish the article saying that more studies should be done with focus on how different head positions affect the musculature, skeleton and mental condition of the horse. And as a veterinarian that makes me happy. I am excited about that. There are so many pieces in the puzzle that belongs to horses and training. It is also important that we do remember this and take care of optimizing everything around the horse.
My proclamation here is just a wish that everybody will be critical of the source and always take a closer look at what a study is based on. This study is only concentrating on finding out whether the air intake of the respiratory airways is affected. However, it is not, and that´s great, but how about everything else?
Questions that I would like to see being answered in connection to this study:
- How about the bit (which type, variety, and size for each horse)
- The adjustment and tightness of the headstall
- How is the basic training of each horse?
- How about the saddle?
- How much does the endoscope placed in his airways affect the horse?
- How is the rider during this test situation?
- Are those horses on their home turf and do they feel secure?
The article does not answer those questions, unfortunately. But even if I did get the answers to this it is important to emphasize that the results do not make Rollkur or LDR a recommended way of riding – in spite of the fact that the horse is able to get sufficient air intake.
It is a huge puzzle and it is necessary to include common sense and more elements
There are so many pieces in training and keeping horses, which I find very interesting and exciting to be working with and I do think that we have to work our way all the way around and look at each and every single piece before we can have healthy and performing horses – without them wearing out mentally and physically.
And yes, this is an undocumented contention. Spoken by a veterinarian. It is a shame that everything has be studied and a lot of money is being poured into studies like that, which I really think is only common sense.