“Rollkur” (or over-bending) is a technique commonly used during warming up and training in elite dressage horses. The horse is ridden deep and round using a draw rein. The technique has come in for criticism recently on welfare grounds. However little work has been carried out to investigate whether such criticism is justified.
Two studies have been carried out recently with the aim of assessing the technique objectively.
Dr Marianne Sloet and colleagues at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Utrecht University studied the response of eight riding school horses to being ridden “rollkur” or freely in a natural frame with only light contact on the reins.
They found that the heart rate and blood lactate concentration were slightly higher in horses ridden “rollkur.” But there were no differences in glucose or cortisol concentrations or in PCV (Packed cell volume - the percentage of the blood that is comprised of red blood cells).
The scientists detected no sign of “stress” or uneasiness when horses were ridden “rollkur.” In fact, horses ridden “rollkur” seemed more responsive to their rider and improved their way of going.
A separate study by Dr E van Breda of the Department of Movement Studies at the University of Maastricht looked at signs of stress in pleasure horses and elite dressage horses in training. The elite dressage horses were trained using the “rollkur” position of the head and neck, while the pleasure horses were not.
The study analysed heart rate variability to give an indication of the stress experienced by the horses. Measurements were taken for half an hour following the morning feed and again for half an hour after the end of the morning’s training session.
The resting measurements were similar for both groups. However, the measurements taken after training in the elite dressage horses showed an increase in parasympathetic tone. Parasympathetic tone tends to make the heart beat more slowly, often leading to dropped beats or other irregularities of rhythm, This is the opposite of the increased sympathetic tone (increased heart rate, no dropped beats.) seen in the flight or fight response.
So, this study suggests that elite dressage horses trained with the “rollkur” position actually have less acute stress after exercise than do recreational horses.
Dr van Breda concludes that the health and welfare of elite dressage horses is being maintained despite the use of unnatural training positions.
For more details see:
Workload and stress in horses: comparison in horses ridden deep and round (“rollkur”) with a draw rein and horses ridden in a natural frame with only light rein contact.
MM Sloet van Oldruitenborgh-Oosterbaan, MB Blok, L Begeman, MC Kamphuis, MC Lameris, AJ Spierenburg, MJ Lashley.
Tijdschr Diergeneeskd. (2006) 131, 152 - 157.
A non-natural head-neck position (rollkur) during training results in less acute stress in elite trained dressage horses.
E van Breda.
J Applied Animal Welfare Science (2006) 9, 59 - 64.