The debate about the welfare aspects of the “Rollkur” technique rumbles on.
In Rollkur, the horse’s neck is hyper flexed so that the nose is very close to, if not touching, the chest. The front of the head is behind the vertical (angled in) instead of being vertical or slightly forward of vertical as in normal poll flexion.
Does the Rollkur technique adversely affect the horse’s welfare? Dr Uta von Borstel and others working at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada conducted a series of tests to investigate.
With the help of two equestrian centers, one in Ontario, the other in Ohio, they devised a preference test, to see if horses would choose or avoid Rollkur if they had the choice.
Each horse was ridden into the trunk of a Y-shaped maze and allowed to choose which arm of the maze to take to enter an exercise area. After leaving the maze the horses would be ridden in 20 meter circles in either the Rollkur or normal poll flexion posture, depending on which arm of the maze they had chosen. Previous training had taught the horses that leaving through one (e.g. left) arm would result in being ridden in the Rollkur posture. Leaving through the other (e.g. right) arm would result in being worked in a normal neck posture. For some horses Rollkur was assigned to the left arm, for others to the right arm, so that the results would not be due to any inherent left or right sidedness.
A rider would ride the horse into the maze, but allow the horse to choose the exit - and by implication the style of riding that would follow.
Fourteen of the fifteen horses in the study chose the normal poll flexion.
Another part of the study involved horses being exposed to a “fear test” whilst being ridden either in Rollkur or normally. Each horse suddenly encountered a fear-inducing stimulus: a fan blowing air with plastic strips attached to it; and an umbrella that was opened and closed as the horse approached.
The researchers found that when horses were ridden in Rollkur rather than in normal poll flexion they tended to have higher heart rates and to react more to the fear-inducing stimulus. Horses ridden in Rollkur also showed higher frequencies of evasive behaviour like (attempted) bucking or head tossing, tail-swishing, and mouth-opening.
The researchers conclude: “horses show higher levels of discomfort when ridden in a coercively obtained Rollkur posture compared to regular poll flexion, and that they will avoid being ridden in Rollkur if given the choice.”
For more details see:
Impact of riding in a coercively obtained Rollkur posture on welfare and fear of performance horses.
UU von Borstel, IJH Duncan, AK Shoveller, K Merkies, LJ Keeling, ST Millman.
Applied Animal Behaviour Science (2009) 116, 228 - 236.