Before You Watch the Equestrian Games
at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, I invite you to a bit of history about the sport of Dressage.
Dressage is often called the ballet of horse sports when equestrians try to explain the sport to non-equestrians.
More than ballet, Dressage has long been considered the art of horse sport. The goal? A powerfully athletic horse, trained to perform difficult gymnastic movements, gracefully and guided by a rider whose communications to the horse are imperceptible. There’s an emphasis here on the use of light physical communications; overt physical force is something that had been left to other horse sports.
This goal was universally shared for centuries.
Change on the Horizon
At the 1995 CHIO Aachen competition we saw a glimpse of something different; horses being ridden with their head and neck over bent to gain more control over them.
Two riders, Isabell Werth and Nicole Uphoff, were using this technique during their warm-ups.
By 2005 this new training technique had incubated before becoming a public eyesore again, now officially termed ‘Rollkur’. This time Anky van Grunsven and her trainer Sjef Janssen were the ones publicly using and defending Rollkur. Even as early as 2001 Sjef Janssen had been giving interviews about the method.
People were outraged then, and now 11 years later they are still fighting to ban this abusive training method from the sport.
In 2006, the FEI which governs international horse sports including Dressage, took some action based on the widespread outrage and criticism. Studies were performed, showing clear scientific evidence that Rollkur significantly interferes with the horse’s breathing by compressing the larynx, and inhibits swallowing.
The result of those studies? The FEI held a round-table conference and banned the practice of Rollkur. In the same session, they also discussed the technique of LDR (low, deep, round; the term Sjef Janssen used in his early interviews when describing the method which was publicly named Rollkur). Just as Rollkur was banned, LDR was explicitly made legal.
The difference between Rollkur and LDR? Low, deep, round can only be maintained for a maximum of 10 minutes before the horse must be given a break. A break of which the FEI has never defined a minimum time period. It is perfectly legal for a rider to use LDR during the duration of a 2 hour ride, giving their horse a 2 second break every 10 minutes.
No studies were performed to show that an unspecified break every 10 minutes alleviates all physical damages caused by the practice of riding a horse in this hyperflexed position.
Amid the pushback from equestrians concerned for the future of the sport and welfare of the horses, judges have consistently awarded competitors who use Rollkur/LDR, giving scores previously unheard of for performances which showed very clear and significant errors.
11 years since the first public outrage of this abusive training technique, the FEI continues to ignore the tens of thousands of equestrians who have protested the use of Rollkur and LDR.
What Does Any of This Matter?
Why should you care if a horse’s head and neck are curled up into their chest?
You should care if you value a fair sport that provides protection for the welfare of the horse.
Also, you should care that there are no less than 8 separate references to the correct positioning of the horse’s head, and all of them indicate the face of the horse’s head should never fall behind the vertical.
In all the work, even at the halt, the Horse must be “on the bit”. A Horse is said to be “on the bit” when the neck is more or less raised and arched according to the stage of training and the extension or collection of the pace, accepting the bridle with a light and consistent soft submissive contact. The head should remain in a steady position, as a rule slightly in front of the vertical, with a supple poll as the highest point of the neck, and no resistance should be offered to the Athlete.
— 2016 FEI Dressage Rules Manual, Article 401, Item 5
Horses trained in LDR consistently perform in their competition ride behind the vertical. A clear violation of a rule that is obviously important enough to warrant 8 individual mentions in the rulebook. You’ll find the other 7 references in the following sections of the 2016 FEI Dressage Rules Manual:
- Article 402, Item 1 referring to the Halt
- Article 403, Item 3.2 referring to the Collected Walk
- Article 403, Item 3.3 referring to the Extended Walk
- Article 404, Item 4.4 referring to the Medium Trot
- Article 405, Item 4.4 referring to the Medium Canter
- Article 414, Item 3 referring to the Passage
- Article 417, referring to Collection
Interestingly, scores at the lower levels still tend to reflect the rules; riders receive lower marks when their horse’s head comes behind the vertical. However at the upper levels of the sport, the opposite is true with horses behind the vertical receiving higher marks, even while displaying increased conflict behavior.
Abuse Begets Abuse
The line is continuing to blur as to what is acceptable within the context of horse welfare. Additional insults to the horse being ignored and side-stepped by the very organization which continues to announce their dedication to the welfare of the horse.
No fewer than 2 separate incidents have now occurred at public exhibitions, where a horse’s tongue had turned blue due to the force of the rider’s hands as they forcibly placed their horse’s head and neck into LDR. The first offense was by Patrik Kittel with his horse Watermill Scandic.
Patrik Kittel was completely exonerated for the blue tongue incident by the FEI. Kittel was at the center of much controversy again at the 2012 Olympic Games when he was photographed riding his horse in such extreme LDR that the horse’s chin was touching its chest.
The second offense was by Andreas Helgestrand, and again the FEI did nothing.
Before you decide to watch this year’s Equestrian Olympic Games. The FEI has ignored the voices of the people directly involved in the sport and chosen instead to pursue financial gain above the welfare of the very animals the sport relies upon.
Equestrians can no longer fight this front on their own. We need you, the general public.
This fight has never been about banning horse sport, or Dressage. It has been about enforcing the clear rules published by the FEI in competition and ensuring the horses aren’t permanently injured by a training method.
Please help us by turning OFF the Olympic Games this year during the Equestrian Dressage competitions and tweeting #EndHorseAbuseWithRio.
It’s not a lot, but maybe, just maybe the FEI will finally heed this protest.